MAKE NO MISTAKE: Goat vs. Goad (Which is Correct?)

In a recent missive analyzing NYC's infantilization of smaller cities, I lead the first sentence (of my lede) with the idiom "get its goad" to illustrate my feeling that a New York Times article had rankled many Baltimore residents. A commentator quickly pounced on the expression as a mechanism to undermine my argument:

"get it's goad."

It is very fitting that H.L. Mencken is most associated with the history of the phrase "getting your goat." His position was that the phrase refers to the practice of certain horse trainers to pair a goat with a restless thoroughbred in order to provide companionship and calm in the stables. Some horses become very attached to their goat and a "goatnapping" by a rival trainer would theoretically cause the racehorse to lose composure....

The author's grasp of this phrase is comparable his understanding of Kreider's essay.

Ouch. Setting aside the underlying issue (and the fact that he incorrectly changed "get its goat" to "get it's goat"), was my usage wrong?

While I've certainly seen "get my goat" employed colloquially in similar circumstances to describe an increase of ire, I'd been previously instructed by several copy desks and style guides to believe that this is a bastardization of an original, Middle English expression: "To get one's Goad."

It's fair to say that unwanted seizures, goat-related or otherwise, have a way of raising our dander. But it is also fair to say that being goaded (or prodded) into action can be a bit unpleasant. Some slang dictionaries say that mishearing has merged the two usages and thus rendered both acceptable. The ambiguity of online authorities really gets my ???? (and gets is good)....

When I ask Professor Tim William Machan, an expert in Historical English linguistics at Notre Dame, he explains that both words have been in use for a mule's age, but the idiom itself is a relatively new expression:

"The phrase "to get someone's goat" means to annoy someone. "Goat" itself is recorded in the earliest English records, but this expression dates to the beginning of the twentieth century, first recorded in the US. It might derive from "goat" in the sense of "fool," which also dates to about that time."

And goad?

"It "also dates to the earliest English records. "To goad" someone, literally, means to poke with a sharp stick, and "to goad" metaphorically means to irritate or annoy. The first examples of the verb date from the seventeenth century, when both senses seem to have been in use."

So was I wrong?

Former manager of the New York Times copy desk Merrill Perlman says that she's "inclined to think that "get my goad" is an eggcorn, a misheard expression."

Machan agrees. "The mixed "to get my goad," which is rather like what Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty calls a portmanteau expression, seems very recent... "to get someone's goat" and "to goad someone" overlap in sense as well as sound, so the mixture is easy to understand."

Was it ever right?

Perlman finds, "no etymological evidence for 'get my goad', meaning it appears in none of the dozen or more slang dictionaries I own (going back to the 1600s), British or American. But there is evidence for "get my goat." which the Oxford English Dictionary traces to Jack London in 1910."

So how did a professional writer muck it up?

According to Perlman, "Similar "eggcorns" have made it into idiom: "Home in on," meaning to focus on something, has become idiomatic as "hone in on," which makes some sense (hone means to sharpen, and you sharpen focus on something), but less sense than "home in," as a homing pigeon or homing missile would do."

Which brings us to the final question: why would anyone want to get a goat?

William Connolly of the American Copy Editors society suggests a slang interpretation for the phrase: "According to Eric Partridge ("A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English")​, the expression "to get someone's goat," meaning to annoy him, may derive from the French  prendre la chevre, to take the milch-goat, which was often a poor person's only source of milk."

Kind of a jerk move, no? What about our rogue commentator and the original assertion that the expression has to do with horse racing?

"The urban legend that the expression somehow relates to horse racing is just that," says Machan, "a legend showing what linguists call folk etymology."

Of course, language is an ever-changing entity, so who's to say?

"I now wonder whether the original, curious "get someone's goat" is itself a portmanteau, showing confusion of "goad" with "goat." In this case, "get my goad" brings the expression full-circle."

Confirming that will take some REAL research, but for the moment I stand corrected, though grammar goading commentators with equally inaccurate understandings do still get my goat.