act the goat

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joe1 | 22:19 Fri 14th Oct 2005 | Phrases & Sayings
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where does this come from ??


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The earliest written use of the phrase appears in a book by H Hartigan published in 1879. It also sometimes appears as 'play the (giddy) goat'. Presumably - like the 'mad' March hare - goats were seen as being particularly silly!

While usually in agreement with Q, I think there's another explanation for this little used phrase.  A similar cliche' still in use is "Get one's goat".  This is fairly clear in meaning... i.e.,becoming upset due to an event or action on the part of another. This phrase (Act the goat) I believe, has a close relationship to our question. The origin may be related to the the belief in England (one source suggests Wales) that goats have a calming effect on milk cows.  Similarly, in the U.S., at least  c1900, a goat was kept in the barns of thoroughbred race horses and were thought to have the same calming effect.  So, in this view, Act the goat has, possibly, an opposing meaning to being foolish.

The phrase may also find its genesis (pun only slightly intended) in the Bible reference found in Leviticus, Chapter 16, concerning the use of a scapegoat to banish the sins of the nation of Israel.  That option is probably more obscure, in mu humble opinion...

Yes, Clanad, but 'to act the goat' is specifically defined by TOED as "to frolic foolishly, to play the fool, to act in an irresponsible manner". That sounds quite the reverse of 'calming' to me.
In addition, for the last century at least, to call someone a goat meant you thought him a fool.
It is not in such common use in Britain as it was in my younger days, but there is simply no question but that the phrase meant then 'to play the fool' and I am pretty sure it still does. The occasional addition of the words 'play' and 'giddy' - the latter meaning 'foolish' for the past 1000 years - to the phrase only supports that view. (I cannot, of course, vouch for its meaning on your side of the Pond!) Cheers
Hmmm... compelling, as usual Q...who am I to argue with the Oxford... we'll, as you say, have another go at it sometime.  Thanx!
When I was a child in the north-east of Scotland in the 1940s, C, the phrase was in constant use. In our dialect, it appeared as "Dinna ac' 'e goat!" (Don't act the goat) or "Stop ac'in' 'e goat!" (Stop acting the goat) when someone did something silly of which we ourselves did not approve.
It's amazing the number of letters we seemed quite happy to dispense with in the Doric!
I suppose nowadays it is far more common - even among children - to say "Stop f-wording about!"

A young goat will from time to time perform a "caprice" which is a sort of mid air twist in the middle of a jump, being capricious!

So my guess is that the phrase refers to "larking about". Watching several young goats capricing all over the field is very entertaining.

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Many thanks for your informative replies.


My OED says the goat is 'associated with frisky movement'; the Latin was capra (capricorn, the astrology sign, means 'goat-horned'). Hence caprice and capriccio. Hares act a little wild in March too; so both these phrases have their origin in what would once have been fairly common observation of animal behaviour. But today, how many people have even seen a goat or hare?

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