Why Goats Show Up in So Many Idioms

Hebrew is full of goats these days, and English and French aren’t too far behind. Where’d they all come from?

Linas T/Shutterstock.

Linas T/Shutterstock.

Feb. 29 2024
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Israel is full of goats these days. One encounters them on TV, on the radio, in the social media, in ordinary conversation. “That’s just a goat Hamas put into the negotiations.”  “Has Netanyahu dragged a new goat into his cabinet?” “An Israeli attack on Rafah is no goat.” “The goat of humanitarian aid to Gaza should be dropped.” And not to be outdone, Minister of Internal Security Itamar Ben-Gvir recently delivered an address to the Knesset that was quickly labeled “the speech of the goats.”

“We have been exposed,” Ben-Gvir said, “to various briefings and leaked reports in the media about what Israel is prepared to give Hamas in the framework of a deal for the release of the hostages. It’s all apparently a goat to pave the way for a less harmful agreement that would still be unconscionable. Let me state from the Knesset floor: our hundreds of dead soldiers are not goats! Their families are not goats! The wounded and crippled are not goats! The residents of southern Israel are not goats! The citizens of Israel are not goats! And I, too, am not a goat.”

A “goat” or ez in Israeli Hebrew is a bargaining chip, a demand introduced by one side to a negotiation for the purpose of being later withdrawn in return for a concession from the other side. The expression derives from an old Jewish story that many of you undoubtedly know. A harried father and mother come to a rabbi and tell him they are at their wits’ end: they live in two rooms with seven children and an eighth on the way, can’t afford more spacious quarters, and are unable to stand the congestion and the racket any longer. What should they do?

“Bring a goat into your home and come back to see me in a month,” says the rabbi in the shorter version of the story. (In the longer one, he starts with a rooster, cat, and dog, or some similar combination.) “A goat?” exclaims the aghast couple. “A goat,” the rabbi repeats. Well, one doesn’t argue with one’s rabbi: the couple buys a goat, installs it in its home, and comes back a month later. “So how’s life?” asks the rabbi. “It’s worse than ever,” the couple groans. “That goat is driving us crazy.” “Good,” says the rabbi. “Now get rid of it and come back in a week.” The couple does as it’s told to and comes back in a week. “How’s life now?” the rabbi asks. “Rabbi,” comes the answer, “we don’t know how to thank you. Life is wonderful. We can finally breathe!”

A clever rabbi! Who wouldn’t want him on one’s negotiating team?

And yet, a bit of linguistic research might lead to the conclusion that our rabbi was misunderstood. Can he have had something entirely different in mind?

Let’s go from Hebrew to English, which has its goats, too. One is in the expression, uttered when irritated or made to lose one’s temper by someone or something, “He [or “It”] got my goat.” Like most idioms, we use this one without thinking about it. Yet if we did stop to think, it certainly would strike us as an odd thing to say. What goat are we talking about?

Some say it’s a French goat. Modern French has the idiom devenir chèvre, “to become a goat,” meaning to act wildly or crazily, presumably because goats have a reputation for capricious (from Latin capra, she-goat) behavior. This is not a likely source for “to get someone’s goat”—but French also has an older expression, prendre la chèvre, “to take the goat,” which goes at least as far back as the 17th century and is closer to the English both literally and in its sense of “to become, or make someone, angry.” “C’est prendre la chèvre un peu bien vite,” “You’re getting worked up a little too fast,” says a character in Molière’s 1660 comedy Sganarelle. The standard explanation of this phrase is that a lone goat was often the only source of milk and dairy products for the poor French rural dweller, so that having it stolen was a source of great aggravation.

But the very antiquity of prendre la chèvre is a problem, because “to get someone’s goat” is only first documented in English in the early 20th century, initially in America and soon afterwords in England, and there is no easy way to account for it making the jump from France at such a point in time. For this reason, etymologists and word-lovers have looked for an independent origin for the English expression. Among their suggestions have been that a goat was the pet animal of Captain Cook, who retaliated in rage when it was stolen from his ship by curious Tahitian islanders while on a 1789 voyage; that a goat was the mascot of the Navy football team and was sometimes, to the team’s chagrin, kidnapped by Army fans before the annual Army-Navy game; and that goats were commonly kept in the stables of high-strung race horses because of their calming effect on them, so that it was a blow to the horse’s backers when its goat was pilfered before a race by bettors on a rival horse. All of these proposals seem far-fetched, which is why The Dictionary of American Slang concludes that “despite several attempted explanations, the inspiration behind the phrase remains unknown.”

Still, although it seems counterintuitive that the presence of a frisky goat would relax a nervous horse, there does seem to be evidence that this is the case and that goats have been used in this way. They are, despite their impulsivity, friendly and accepting creatures of a generally placid nature, and as the publication Goat Fun Facts observes, they were traditionally kept with other animals “to help keep them calm.” Nor was it just with horses. An old English or Welsh folk belief, states Goat Fun Facts, was that “keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk.”

This throws new light, I venture to say, on the behavior of our rabbi. Let’s put ourselves in his place. He must have known after all at least some of what Goat Fun Facts knows. One can easily imagine him wondering: if goats can soothe cows and horses, why can’t they also soothe people?

It may well be, in other words, that our rabbi never intended the goat to be removed. Most likely he was thinking, “These poor people are frantic—what they need is a goat to calm them down.” It never occurred to him that a goat would knock over the oil lamp, eat the Sabbath candles, chew the baby’s diapers, and so get in everyone’s way that a two-room, seven-child home would seem a paradise once it was gone. Naturally, when apprised of the havoc the goat had wreaked, he took fright and cried, “Gevalt, get rid of it!” What else could he have done?

A shlimazel of a rabbi! And yet he was smart about one thing. When word of what had happened got out—when the grateful couple told their neighbors about how their rabbi had saved their lives, and their neighbors told their neighbors, and word of the rabbi’s genius spread so far and wide that even we, who knows how many hundreds of years later, know all about it—he had the good sense to say nothing. He didn’t protest, “Wait a minute! That’s not what happened! I never planned it that way.” Not at all. He simply blessed his good luck, and then he smiled and stroked his beard and did his very best to look wise.

More about: Arts & Culture, Goats, Hebrew