The Origins of “Get Your Goat”

My grandmother was fond of using old-fashioned sayings and proverbs, and as a result, I developed a strong appreciation of them. It’s always fun finding out where a familiar saying came from too, which is why I recently looked into where the phrase “get your goat” came from (for the record, I started the draft of this post in December, way before The Huffington Post talked about this).

As commonly used, “get your goat” means to make someone angry or annoyed, but who on Earth would equate a goat with anger or annoyance? They’re so sweet and gentle! Exhibit A:

Do you see the family resemblance?

Go ahead. Just try one more banana-less day, lady.

As it turns out, there’s no clear consensus on the phrase’s origins, but both proposed explanations I’ve found revolve around the idea that goats were kept with other animals to help keep them calm.

The Phrase Finder concludes that the saying is distinctly American dating back to 1909 and sticks by the “commonly repeated story which purports to explain the phrase’s origin is that goats were placed with racehorses to keep them calm. When ne’er-do-wells who wanted the horse to race badly removed it, i.e. they ‘got someone’s goat’, the horse became unsettled and ran badly.” The site admits, though that there’s no evidence to support this etymological tale.

That said, Ye Olde English Sayings discusses the origins of “getting your goat” with reference to “an old English (Welsh?) belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize/terrorize one’s enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less- to non-productive.”

Whether the phrase is English or American, the common thread is “goats as the great calmers of nature.”

*After I published this, my mom reminded me that in The Sopranos episode where Tony has bought the racehorse Pie-O-My, the trainers keep a goat in the pen with her to calm her down before races — it *must* be true if Tony Soprano says so, right?!

Do you buy it? Were goats the original horse whisperers and/or cow whisperers?

Does anyone have experience with the calming nature of goats on their other animals?

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7 Responses to “The Origins of “Get Your Goat””
  1. 03.11.2011

    Great, interesting post! I can see how a goat would calm some animals down.

    Makes sense to me, too, Teresa 🙂


  2. 11.07.2013

    I’ve known many people that keep horses who would often put a goat in with an anxious horse. I believe these stories.


  3. Jim

    Think “angry” and “billy goats being prone to butting” and you have the answer to the old saying.


  4. Pat Fegan

    Maybe someone just mixed up goat with coat. I’d get upset if someone got MY coat.


  5. Pat

    There’s a TV show called “America’s Secret Slang”. They said that back in the day, goats would be a horse’s stall for calming, and people would steal (or get) the goat so the horse wouldn’t run as well.


  6. 05.15.2015

    In 1789 Captain James Cook was on his third voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard the HMS Resolution. While anchored at Tahiti (Otahiti), some natives came on board at night and stole the ship’s goat. The goat was James Cook’s goat and was on her third voyage with Cook to the Pacific. Cook had brought gifts of horses and sheep to the Tahitians from King George III. Captain Cook was quite angry about the theft of the goat and burned native canoes and held tribal leaders hostage until the goat was returned to the ship. They “got Cook’s goat”. I’ve been reading James Cook’s Journals. I was wondering if this may be where the saying came from. Captain Cook was speared to death by the native Hawians in 1789 while attempting to hold their king hostage for the return of a stolen dingy.


  7. Richard Noblett

    My understanding was that it came from the fact that the Navy mascot is a goat, and that, early on in the rivalry of the annual Army – Navy football game, it was customary for Army to try and kidnap the Navy’s goat. It would certainly have angered the Midshipmen, and the timing is right.


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Goats that readers have spotted out and about. Send your photos to michelle(at)goatberries(dot)com! 

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