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What does "Gets my Goat" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When people say that something "really gets my goat,” they mean that they are extremely irritated. A wide variety of things could contribute to irritation, ranging from someone else's actions to a series of events, but, despite the turn of phrase, goats are not usually involved. Like many colorful idioms in the English language, the origins of “get my goat” are murky, difficult to pin down, and actually rather fascinating.

Basic Meaning

If a person says, "that really gets my goat," he or she is simply expressing that an occurrence or object has caused annoyance. The "that" in the statement might not even refer to an actual thing, but rather to a situation. It is also common for a person to direct the phrase at someone else as "you really get my goat," to indicate that the object of the comment is annoying the speaker.

Early Usage and Possible Origins

The first recorded uses of the phrase crop up around the early 1900s, and seem to suggest that this idiom is American in origin. This time period was, in fact, a great era for colorful slang terms in America, reflecting the rapid expansion of settlement in the US and the commingling of people from a wide variety of social, class, and ethnic backgrounds. A number of slang terms from this era are undoubtedly corruptions of slang from other languages, or misunderstandings of English words. Some people have suggested that “gets my goat” may be related to “goad,” as in “to irritate.”

Possible Roots in French

This fairly mundane explanation has been eclipsed by a number of other interpretations of the slang term. Some people have suggested that the term is a translation from the French prendre la chèvre, “to take the goat,” an idiom from Old French which references taking someone's form of income. For low-income French peasants, the theft or a goat would be a catastrophe, as the animals provided milk and meat for their owners. However, this may be a backformation, which is a connection made after the fact, rather than an explanation of "gets my goat."

Connections to Horse Racing

One of the most interesting explanations behind “gets my goat" involves racing horses. As early as the 1700s, goats were used as companion animals to help settle race horses, keeping the notoriously skittish animals relaxed. Taking a horse's pet goat away would have agitated and upset the animal, potentially influencing the outcome of a race.

The practice of providing race horses with companion animals is still widespread, with horses bonding with ponies, chickens, dogs, and a variety of other animals in addition to goats. Many horses do indeed become deeply attached to their companions, exhibiting considerable stress when these animals are removed. Someone taking away a companion animal could negatively impact a horse's performance, and such incidents may have inspired the idiom “gets my goat” among observers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon969363 — On Sep 09, 2014

To "get your goat" must come from Jesus dividing people as either being like sheep or goats in temperament: goats are harder to control, as if always angry, whereas sheep are docile.

By giddion — On Feb 18, 2013

I've never owned a goat, so it feels wrong to say that anything really gets my goat. It just doesn't sound natural to me. I may be crazy, but I only like using idioms that have some relevance to reality.

By JackWhack — On Feb 17, 2013

I've always thought that the phrase “that really gets my goat” was funny. I never thought about the meaning behind it, because it just struck me as some off-the-wall comment that someone made up and it caught on somewhere in time.

The first person I ever heard use this phrase was my grandmother. I laughed so hard when she said it, and she was puzzled over why I thought it was so funny. Apparently, this phrase is really common among her generation.

By shell4life — On Feb 17, 2013

If you were raising goats for meat, then someone taking your goats could be very serious. We don't tend to think of this phrase in that light anymore, because we usually don't know anyone who depends on goats for survival, but back in the day, I'm guessing this was a rather serious idiom.

By orangey03 — On Feb 16, 2013

@gameaddicted – I didn't know that horses could have pets, either! I did snicker when I read that.

However, when an animal loses a companion, it's no laughing matter. Some animals grieve themselves sick over the loss of a friend, and I would guess that horses could grieve over losing a goat.

That reminds me of a sad story involving a bond between a man and a goat. My friend's husband recently died of a heart attack, and he had a pet goat. She said the goat actually grieved itself to death, so in a way, her husband's death “got his goat.”

By anon250096 — On Feb 24, 2012

Get my goat perhaps refers to a personal goat, personal in terms of a companion, as comfort or a sexual partner?

By anon135941 — On Dec 21, 2010

Could this also be a reference to someone grabbing and pulling your beard? As in "gets my goatee."

By abiane — On Jul 22, 2010

@gameaddicted - I agree that the companion animal is an interesting angle on this common saying. I don't hear the saying used much anymore so I think it's kind of fizzled out, but what do you want to bet it will come back in style like everything else?

By gameaddicted — On Jul 22, 2010

@alex94 - That is too funny! I think it is so interesting that this saying has other roots and ideas behind it. The thought that race horses have companion animals is interesting and kind of funny, but if you think about it we often buy our pet dog or cat another dog or cat to befriend or bond with, too, so it makes sense as well.

By alex94 — On Jul 21, 2010

I can remember being young and my sister and I were running around in her flower bed and we really messed it up. She ran outside and saw us and said very loudly "I'M GONNA GET YOUR GOAT". We ran.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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