Posted by Tracy Kiefer on September 27, 2001
I know "get your goat" means to annoy someone, but does anyone know the derivation of this phrase?
There is one theory, espoused by H.L. Mencken among others, that ties the phrase to the world of horse racing. It used to be common practice, goes this theory, to stable goats with race horses, trainers believing that the mere presence of the goats would help keep the excitable thoroughbreds calm. If an unscrupulous gambler were to arrange for the removal of a certain goat from a certain horse's stall the day before a race, the horse might be so flustered by the absence of its hircine pal that it would lose the race. The gambler would thus have "gotten the horse's goat."
Unfortunately, the first occurrence of the phrase in print, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, was in 1908. Since goats are no longer (if they ever were) housed with race horses, the practice must have arisen near the beginning of the 20th century -- and been abandoned shortly thereafter -- for that theory to be true.
A more likely origin of the phrase lies in an earlier citation in the Random House dictionary, for "goat" as prison slang for "anger." I think this may be the key. After all, goats do, with much provocation, get angry. To bring out the "goat" in someone may take some doing, but will eventually have dramatic results.