Friday, June 3, 2016

Get My Goat Update - Navy Boxers in Earliest Example


The idiom, "to get one's goat," is an idiom that means, "to make one angry or annoyed."  Its earliest examples of use, however, reflect a slightly different sense; namely, to make someone lose their composure or their will to go on.

See, for example, my earlier post, "Getting Goats, Losing Goats, Stable Goats and Navy Goats - a History and Etymology of 'Get My Goat'", in which I surveyed and analyzed numerous early examples of the idiom.  The expression appears to be an allusion to the widespread practice of keeping goats as mascots (particularly in the Navy or fraternal organizations) or as companions for livestock, particularly racehorses. The expression first appeared widely in print in articles about boxing matches; when one boxer gets the other's "goat," he removes that boxer's will to fight; as though his mascot or good luck charm had been taken away.

Based on the longstanding practice of keeping goats on ships (the mascot of the United States Naval Academy is still a goat), some early explanations of the idiom suggesting that the expression was Navy slang, the prevalence of boxing in the Navy, and boxers with nautical nicknames, I postulated that the idiom originated in the Navy and may have been introduced into boxing circles by ex-sailors.  A newly identified early example of the idiom corroborates (or is, at a minimum, consistent with) my suggestion that the idiom, "get my goat," originated in the Navy and could have been introduced into boxing circles by Navy boxers. 


An observant reader, identified as Jeff Otjen in a comment to my earlier "Get My Goat" post, brought my attention to what now appears to be the earliest known example of the idiom in print.  It was published in Kansas in 1900 (five years earlier than the previous "earliest" example), and involved a sailor and a boxer. 

The idiom was also presented without explanation; suggesting, according to Jeff Otjen, that the expression may have already been in common use.  While that is possible, there may be another explanation.  The article may have been published as an example of colorful, naval language, with no attempt to explain, or expectation that it be understood.  The expression appears in brief excerpts from a letter home, written by a local baseball player who had joined the Navy and was then on deployment onboard the USS Kentucky (BB 6).  In colorful language, the author lets his friends know that he will be home when his enlistment expires in 1904; unless. . .

. . . "some boxer gets my goat":

Wikimedia Commons

 On The Kentucky.

Atchison Ball Player Joins the Navy and Enjoys It.

Atchison, Nov. 28. – Roy Krebs likes the navy.  He is on the Kentucky, the splendid new battleship, and writes Frank Beauchamp, from Gibraltar, Spain, under date of November 9, as follows:

“This life has ball playing skinned a city block.  You don’t have to worry over your batting average in the summer or dodge snowballs in winter.”

The Kentucky left New York October 25, and arrived at Gibraltar November 7, after a rough voyage.  The breakers ran clear over the ship, and carried away one of its life boats.  The Kentucky left Gibraltar November 10 for Algiers, where a stop of a week will be made, when it will continue to Naples, and from there to Alexandria, Port Said, through the Suez canal and by way of Aden, Arabia, Colombo, Ceylon, Singapore and Siam to Hong Kong.  The ship is due off the Chinese coast January 16, but may not get thee by that time, as there is talk of sending it to Turkey to make the sultan pay a claim which the United States has against him. 

My enlistment expires June 15, 1904,” writes Krebs, “when I return to Atchison, unless some boxer gets my goat.”

The Topeka State Journal (Kansas), November 28, 1900, page 2. 


I am a little embarrassed to admit I did not find the example myself; it shows up in a newspaper database I use regularly, and used while preparing my original "Get My Goat" post.  I have a theory about how and why I missed it; it involves an old joke - a joke that was already at least twenty years old in 1900 - a joke that was experiencing a renaissance in late-1900.

When searching for "gets my goat" on the Library of Congress' online newspaper archive,, there are no fewer than twelve "hits" between September and December 1900; eleven of them examples of a new round of an old joke about old kid gloves -  only one of them an early example of the idiomatic use of "get my goat."

Unless the newly identified reference is a from a newspaper was only recently added to their database, I imagine that I may have browsed through several of the "hits" that were all the same joke, and then just ignored the rest of the "hits" from the time span during which the joke was making the rounds.  That, and the fact that all of my other searching - and searching by others on the same quest - all came up with earliest examples from five years later; a one-off example in print, five years earlier, may have seemed far-fetched.

OK, it's not a very good excuse.

The joke is not very good either.  To be fair, it may have been better back in the day, when more people wore "kid" gloves; that is, gloves made from the soft, supple leather of young goats - "kids."  The joke that made the rounds in late-1900 and foiled my ability to easily sort through the chaff to find the early example of the idiom, was at least twenty years old by 1900.

The joke uses the phrase, "get my goats," to mean - go retrieve my goat-leather gloves.  The punch line replaces the word "kids," a standard manner of referring to a pair of kid-leather gloves, with the word, "goats."  She calls her "kids" "goats," because they are so old - hinting that her husband should buy her some new ones.  The joke does not appear related to the now-familiar idiomatic sense of aggravate, or the earlier sense of losing one's composure or will to fight.

Here are a few examples of the joke as it appeared in newspapers between 1880 and 1902:

Norwood News (Norwood, New York), May 11, 1880, page 4.

The Topeka State Journal, July 1, 1896, page 8.
The Daily Leader (Gloversville, New York), October 5, 1896, page 5 (the same version of the joke appeared in The Geneva Daily Times (Geneva, New York), November 22, 1902, page 6).

Western Kansas World (WaKeeney, Kansas), November 17, 1900, page 1.


  1. I enjoyed your updated article. I did use the same database as you to find the reference. I also got tired of the joke, on the other hand it forced me to realize that the expression "handle with kid gloves" refers to goats rather than gloves used for small children :)


    see comic strip of 1896

    1. Wow. But while the image of the "Yellow Kid" cartoon at the link is an interesting historical artifact reflecting the sometimes casual racist attitudes of the time, I'm not sure that it reflects the meaning of the idiom. At first blush, the image (a cartoon of a children's boxing match featuring a goat that gets into the fight) suggests that it might be related to "get one's goat", but the goat of the cartoon gets the opponent, not the other way around. No one's goat is gotten. But thank you for sharing.

    2. The "joke" of the cartoon is that the goat can take the place of the "Yellow Kid" in the fight, because the "Yellow Kid" is a kid.