Q From Selinda Chiquoine: My new puppy has really gotten my goat, and I was wondering how the heck that phrase came to be?
A It’s a perplexing expression right enough. Though the phrase is recorded from near the beginning of the twentieth century, nobody seems to know where it comes from.
We do know it’s American. The earliest known reference to it is in a book, Life in Sing Sing, of 1904, in which goat is glossed as meaning anger. Examples begin to appear in the following years, with its becoming more widely known by about 1910 (an article in the Washington Post in September that year about superstitions connected with goats calls it “the modern slang expression”). Also in that year, Jack London included it in a letter: “Honestly, I believe I’ve got Samuels’ goat! He’s afraid to come back”.
The most common story to explain the phrase relates to horse racing in North America and to the common practice of putting a goat in the stall with a skittish thoroughbred racehorse to help calm it. Enterprising villains capitalised on this by gambling on the horse to lose and then stealing the goat. A substantial desire to suspend one’s disbelief is needed to accept this story at face value.
Other people have tried to identify it in some way with scapegoat, have seen it as a variant form of goad, and have linked it with an old French phrase prendre la chèvre (to take the goat). But evidence is lacking for all of them.