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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 ( 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.”

None of this, of course, really answers the question the goats are probably asking themselves, “Why a goat?” Well, they are funny-looking, and, for most people, goats tend to rank low on the Cuddle Scale of Animal Cuteness. I actually think goats are awesome, but whatever. Then there’s that “Hey it’s Tuesday, let’s sacrifice a goat” thing in several major world religions. And the ancient drawings of Satan with a goat’s head — not good. But maybe “goat” as slang for “loser” or “object of ridicule” ultimately goes back to the “scapegoat” scampering off into the woods. Nothing says “loser” like having the sins of the entire world pinned to your tail.


I prefer a gunny sack and a wheelbarrow.

Dear Word Detective: I got to wondering about the current popularity (especially in LL Bean catalogs) of the use of “tote” as a noun (e.g., “Pop your beach gear in one of our handy totes”). I know of “tote” as a verb (e.g., “Tote your beach gear in one of our handy canvas bags”). But before sneering too much at another case of “nouning a verb,” I thought to look up the origin of “tote” to see if it actually started as a verb. Alas! I hit the “origin uncertain” wall — the etymologist’s shrug. Any insight to share? — Danny.

Nouning verbs? Be careful or you’ll provoke a new crusade. The usual complaint among people who complain about such things is directed at “verbing nouns,” using nouns as verbs (“chair,” “host” and “gift” being notorious examples). It’s an ancient complaint, but a few years ago Calvin, of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, revived the ruckus by famously declaring that “Verbing nouns weirds language.” That line was a big hit with folks who were apparently unaware that approximately one-fifth of our modern English nouns started out as verbs (including “pepper,” “strike,” “divorce” and “fool”). This sort of role-change for words is called “conversion,” and it’s not at all uncommon. As for “nouning verbs,” if it were really such a bad idea, gerunds would be illegal.

Onward. “Tote” was, at least in English, originally a verb. It first appeared in English around 1677, and from the beginning it had the same general definition it has today: “to carry by hand, or to haul or lug on the person (as in a backpack, etc.).” “Tote” is also used to mean “to routinely carry as part of one’s usual equipment” (“Each officer totes a sidearm, pepper spray, a two-way radio and emergency doughnuts”). In the 18th century, “tote” was also used in two slightly wider senses: “to accompany or escort another person” as on a visit (“At Baltimore I made a stay of two days, during which I was toted about town,” Washington Irving, 1807) and “to carry or transport,” not necessarily on one’s body (“I … cart all the wood, tote the wheat to the mill,” 1803).

If you look up the origin of “tote” as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), you’ll find that they label it as “origin unascertained.” They go on to declare that “There is no foundation for an alleged origin in the black slave communities of the Southern States (and ultimately Africa).” Yet at least two other perfectly reputable dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, find just such a theory plausible, introducing it with “probably” and “perhaps,” respectively.

The specific assertion of the theory is that “tote” harks back to a word in a West African language brought to the American South by slaves, possibly something akin to “tota” (“to pick up”) in Kikongo or “tuta” (to pile up or carry) in Swahili. The time period of first appearance is certainly right, and the spotty written record of creoles spoken by early-generation slaves would make a slam-dunk documentation of a transition from “tota” to “tote” hard to come by. But, given the exact correspondence in the meanings of the words, it certainly doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. However, considering the apparent lack of any solid evidence at all, I’m not surprised that the OED plays hardball on this one. It’s their job.

Meanwhile, back at the LL Bean catalog (which should be plural, or perhaps something beyond plural, since we receive at least three different versions per day, the latest being “LL Bean for Pets”), “tote” first appeared as a noun in the early 20th century, meaning simply “an act of carrying or transporting.” The use of “tote” to mean “a large canvas carrying bag given in return for money sent to a radio station” is simply a convenient shortening of “tote bag,” which dates back to around 1900 (“The Watson Tote Bag … best thing … for carrying coat, camera, …lunch, &c.,” 1900). For the record, I am the proud owner of precisely zero tote bags, though I do have a dandy messenger bag I used to wear when I rode the subways in New York City. Unlike a tote bag, it leaves your hands free to deal with the things you have to deal with.


Stop it right now.

Dear Word Detective: My daughter learned in elementary school that a group of jellyfish is called a “smuck.” This is suspiciously close to the jelly and jam company called “Smuckers.” Can you tell us if there is any relationship between these two words? — Margaret.

Suspiciously close indeed, and perhaps yet more evidence of the commercialization of childhood. On the other hand, it’s a bit hard to imagine why the Smuckers people would want their product associated in tiny minds with nasty stinging sea creatures. Children are impressionable, and names matter. I myself waited until I was thirty years old before I tried eggplant, simply because I found the name itself so repellent. But then I tried it, and discovered that I should have trusted my prejudice, because eggplant is the most revolting so-called food on the planet. Yuck. But the point is that early impressions can leave a lasting legacy of loathing. So I guess the moral of all that is that, if you’re Smuckers, don’t use a jellyfish as your mascot. And please don’t ever make eggplant jam.

Collective nouns, terms for groups of animals, people or things, are a perennial subject of questions I receive, and when I post my answers on my website at, the resulting discussion can become weirdly contentious. A column I posted a few years ago about “a murder of crows” has garnered 20 comments so far, several of which seem to consist of one reader snarling “Sez who?” at another. The tussle about such terms is usually over whether they are “real” terms commonly used by experts (even if in the misty past), or frivolous new inventions (such as “a brace of orthodontists” or “a disputation of lawyers”) concocted by modern chucklemongers.

As I explained at the time, many of the terms we use today, such as “a host of angels,” date back at least to the 15th century and were first documented in a compilation called The Book of St. Albans,” which was (we think) written by Dame Juliana Barnes, prior of a convent in England. The modern interest in such terms was spawned by James Lipton’s marvelous 1968 collection “An Exaltation of Larks,” which divided such terms into three categories: terms found in the 15th century collections that remain in use today (such as “an exaltation of larks” and “a string of ponies”); old terms (such as “a cast of hawks” and “a knot of toads”) that were once common but have fallen into obscurity, and, lastly, oddities from old collections of such terms. That last category offers such weirdness as “a rage of maidens” (employing “rage” in the 14th century sense of “jesting, fun; riotous or wanton behavior”) and “a cete of badgers,” which may come from the Latin “coetus,” meaning “meeting, assembly.” Lipton called such names “terms of venery” (from the Latin “venari,” to hunt), though the category is broader than merely game animals, unless there’s a hunting season for lawyers, in which case you can make up your own joke.

Since most ancient lists consisted simply of such terms defined without explanation, Lipton and other modern scholars have speculated about the origin of the term where it seems reasonable (such as with “cete”), but are, more often than not, as mystified as the rest of us, which brings us to jellyfish. Lipton lists not “smuck” but “smack” as a term for a group of jellyfish. But even “smack” in this sense is absent from the Oxford English Dictionary, so I’m going to assume that the “smack/smuck” contradiction dates back to those misty pasts and bad proofreading in the 15th century. Determining which is “real” and historically accurate won’t get us any nearer to an explanation of why in the world anyone would call a bunch of jellyfish a “smack” or a “smuck.”

And now it’s time to don my Mister Grumpy cap and fulminate. Teaching a small child that a group of jellyfish is called a “smuck” is not a good idea because it’s not really true. Today, as opposed to back in the 15th century, a group of jellyfish is called either a “bloom” or a “swarm.” In practical use you can get by with a “school” or a “bunch.” Calling such a glob of the unpleasant little critters a “smuck” is cute, but not a good way to communicate with anyone not in the mood for cuteness.

Furthermore, as long as I’m being cranky, I understand that the fact that jellyfish are not actually fish (quelle surprise!) has led some aquariums in the US to adopt the term “jellies” or “sea jellies” instead. Oh, please. Newsflash: crayfish aren’t “actually fish” either. And groundhogs aren’t really hogs, prairie dogs aren’t even close to being dogs, and woodchucks, alas, don’t actually chuck wood. Somebody needs to get a grip.