Thursday, September 21, 2006
The Daily Hump: All Goat Things...
If you're like me, and you probably are a bit since you're on this site, you get enjoyment out of humping even the most mundane of words. In fact, you probably find that the more mundane the more interesting the etymology. Today we're going to hump goats...not literally...just linguistically. Goats have been domesticated for upwards of 10,000 years and, as one would expect, the word goat can therefore be traced very far back in time. Our Modern English word comes from the Old English gat (hence the ancient pairing of Old E and gats...), which meant "she-goat". The word then goes back further to Proto-Germanic and finally to Proto-Indo-European *ghaidos meaning "kid" (in the young goat sense) or "play". Thus, we can rename the wholesome hip-hop comedy duo of the House Party movies Ghaidos.
It's strange but everyone seems to have a goat that can be gotten, and not just by the standard means of goat rustling. Just yesterday I used the phrase "[My boss] really gets my goat." The idiom's origin is unfortunately difficult to discern. Take Our Word For It reported waaaaay back in May 2000
The earliest example of the phrase comes from a letter written by Jack London in 1910. It has been suggested that to get one's goat, meaning "to annoy or irritate", derives from the supposed practice of putting a goat in a racehorse's stall to calm the horse. A gambler might pay a stable boy to remove the goat, upsetting the horse and, possibly, the results of the horse's race.TOWFI observes that this explanation seems rather "tenuous" and I couldn't agree more. They suggest, along with others, that the etymology may be connected to the word scapegoat.
In general terms a scapegoat is the fall guy, the one who bears the blame for others. The word is of Biblical origin. On Yom Kippur the high priest of the Jerusalem temple would confess the sins of the Jews to a goat which was then led out into the wilderness, thus symbolically the sins were cast away (see Leviticus 16:22). Of course, the story doesn't end here. As TOWFI notes*
William Tyndale, translator of the Bible in the 16th century, is credited with coining the English term, having translated it from Hebrew azazel. So what is azazel? It is a word which only appears in Leviticus 16:10, with reference to a Hebrew practice for Yom Kippur. Two goats were brought forth, and one was sacrificed to God, while the other was "given" the people's sins and then set free in the wilderness, carrying the sins away. The latter goat was interpreted by Tyndale to be the azazel, meaning "scapegoat", though this is now understood to be incorrect. The Good News Bible, along with most other current translations, renders the passage "There he shall draw lots, using two stones, one marked 'for the Lord' and the other 'for Azazel.' Aaron shall sacrifice the goat chosen by lot for the Lord and offer it as a sin offering. The goat chosen for Azazel shall be presented alive to the Lord and sent off into the desert to Azazel, in order to take away the sins of the people." The meaning of the Hebrew word is not known, though The Good News Bible suggests that it may be the name of a desert demon.In fact, the Talmud and later Jewish commentators maintain Azazel was the name of the precipitous cliff where the goat met its end. In Modern Hebrew, "lekh l'Azazel" is the equivalent of the English curse "go to Hell". And speaking of Hell and desert demons, Satan is, of course, often depicted as goat-like although this is the influence of the Greek demigod Pan, not Azazel.
*Tyndale's exact rendering from 1530: "The goote on which the lotte fell to scape"
:: posted by David, 8:34 AM