Goat

Let’s blame Billy.

Dear Word Detective: It “got my goat” that I was the “goat” for the team matches at my golf club. Actually, I was told I “laid down like a dog.” That last label I fully understand and need no etymological assistance. Besides my obvious need for putting lessons I was curious why “goat” is used in these apparently diverse ways. (By the way, while I was looking up “goat” I noticed the slang usage meaning “Greatest of All Time.” I am pretty sure that is not what they meant at the club.) — Bob.

Wow. I knew I wasn’t a golfer (I’m sure I’d remember something like that, and a glance in my closet revealed an absence of those club-thingies you use), but when I stumbled over the word “putting” in your question I realized how far out of the links-loop I am. I didn’t recognize it at first as the golf term, and instead read it as a form of the verb “to put,” as in “Putting on his coat, Bob realized he should also wear a hat.” As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off course. The verb “to putt” in golf, meaning “to make a light stroke on the green,” is actually just an antiquated form of “to put,” which is derived from Germanic roots. It’s the same sense of “to put” as we use in “shot putting,” that of “push, shove, move by force.” I guess we can blame the Scots who invented your infernal game for the pronunciation difference between “put” and “putt.”

I’d never heard of “goat” being used as an acronym for “Greatest of All Time,” but if that usage takes off I’ll begin to suspect that the goats have hired a public relations agent. They could certainly use one. Our modern term “scapegoat,” for instance, referring to someone who is unfairly made to bear the blame for something, comes from the Bible. In an ancient ritual once observed on the Hebrew Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest transferred the sins of his people onto a goat, which was then taken into the wilderness and allowed to escape, symbolically taking all the sins with him and giving everyone a fresh start. This goat was known as the “escape goat,” or “scapegoat.”

Another “goat” crops up in the phrase “to get one’s goat,” meaning to severely annoy someone. The origin of this phrase is a mystery, although we do know that it first appeared in print in the early 20th century. The only even remotely plausible theory we have about the phrase ties it to horse racing. Trainers apparently used to believe that placing a goat in a racehorse’s stall would calm the steed before a race. Unscrupulous gamblers might, the tale goes, seek to sabotage the horse’s chances by stealing (“getting”) the goat. The best we can say is that this theory is not absolutely impossible. H.L. Mencken liked it.

Goats must have their lighter side, however, because “to play the giddy goat” and “to act the goat” have meant “to behave foolishly” since the late 19th century. In the early 20 century, “goat” appeared in print as slang for “a fool” or “a dupe, a patsy” (“The drarmer’s writ be Shakespeare, years ago, About a barmy goat called Romeo,” 1916).

The use of “goat” to mean “loser” or “butt of jokes” may well be a further development of this slang sense. A reader of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org) noted earlier this year that “goat” in this sense was a staple of the old Peanuts cartoon strip (“If I catch it, we’ll win the championship, and I’ll be the hero! If I miss it, I’ll be the goat! I can hear it now … ‘Charlie the goat Brown!’”). Another of Quinion’s readers pointed out that graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point traditionally play an intramural football game where the teams are selected according to academic standing, the top half of the class being known as “the Engineers” and the lower half as “the Goats.”

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