“Don’t be discouraged, Charlie Brown. You have nothing to lose. You’ll either be the hero, or a goat.“ – Linus Van Pelt, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)
During every season of Survivor, there will come the point when players and fans begin discussing which of the remaining players are “goats.” The goat refers to a player with a highly unlikely chance of winning; whom if taken to the Final Tribal Council should be easily beatable due to the way they played the game or treated the members of the jury. It has become such a repeated term that it is now cemented in the lexicon of Survivor; used not only by superfans of the show but by journalists, podcasters and even the players themselves.
But where did this phrase come from and how did it become so commonly accepted in the world of Survivor?
We can trace the term back to the 1950s in Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip Peanuts, where the character of Charlie Brown was often referred to as the goat. In this context, Charlie Brown was manager and pitcher for the hapless, under-performing neighborhood baseball team. In each strip, Charlie was put in the position to either become the hero or the goat. If Charlie caught the ball his team would win and he would be celebrated as the hero. If Charlie dropped the ball, which happened more often than not, his team would lose, and he would be chastised as the goat. As we can see, the goat in this context is the person blamed for the failures and inadequacies of the team.
But Peanuts certainly didn’t invent the phrase; even though the popularity and influence of the comic strip likely had an impact on the increased use of the term in modern pop culture. The connection between the phrase and baseball in Charlie Brown is no coincidence, as the hero and goat analogy is deeply rooted in American sports history. Michael Quinion on his website World Wide Words investigated the origin of phrase “from hero to goat” and traced it back to the 1920s in the sports pages of local newspapers. Particularly in regards to basketball and football:
But from none of this does one gather that Mr. Wilton is one of those colorful young men whose deeds in a big game always give room for praise due a hero — or raps due the goat — after the game is over. – Logansport Press, 15 Nov. 1928.
Again, the goat is the person held accountable for a team’s loss or misfortune. It is still heavily used in American sports media today. Print journalists dedicate entire columns to the concept. Take this article from STLToday.com for example, Heroes and Goats: A World Series Collection, which determined the heroes and goats of the 2013 World Series; itself an idea “…inspired by the late great sports cartoonist Bill Gallo of New York who did the same from 1958 to 2010″. So we have established the precedent for the phrase in its continued use within the sports industry, but that still doesn’t explain exactly where the term came from and why it is associated with such negative connotations.
Let’s travel way back to Ancient Greece and dramatic theater. Without getting too intellectual, it is interesting to look to Greek tragedies for the origin of the goat phrase because the word tragedy itself literally means “goat song.” In many Athenian play contests, a prize of a live goat would be awarded to the winner, and sometimes even sacrificed as part of the worship to the god Dionysus. Goats being sacrificed as part of religious worship can be traced back centuries. Below is the common English translation of the Hebrew Bible:
And Aaron shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot “For the Lord,” and the other lot, “For Azazel.” – Leviticus, Leviticus 16:8.
The above quote describes the sacrifice of two goats as part of the ceremonies of The Day of Atonement. The first goat was for the Lord and was slain as a blood sacrifice. The second goat was outcast to the desert. This ritual was performed to atone for the sins of the nation. This is where the term “scapegoat” derives.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word scapegoat as “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.” Now we start to see where the negative connotations of the goat derived. Does that sound like it could be applied to those World Series baseball players? Or to Charlie Brown? Or to any number of Survivor finalists?
“Phillip’s a wacko. He’s a nut-job. But he’s like the biggest goat that’s pissed everybody here off. If I drag him to the end he doesn’t get any votes. ” – Boston Rob Mariano, Survivor: Redemption Island.
So if goat is an abbreviated form of scapegoat, it becomes clearer now why it was picked up by sports journalists to describe athletes that were put at blame for a team’s failure. It was a short, simple, buzzworthy word that was able to encapsulate the prevailing feelings towards that player perfectly. It soon caught on and became a commonly used expression in sports media.
But that still doesn’t quite explain how it became just as often used in Survivor. Who first introduced this mostly sports based term into the world of Survivor? And how did it evolve from a phrase predominantly used by a small group of online superfans to been uttered on the show itself by players such as Boston Rob and most recent winner Mike Holloway?
In 2001, soon after the finale of Survivor: The Australian Outback, forum member sunsawed posted a thread on the Survivor Sucks website titled “The Fox, the Bear, the Goat and the Bunny”. It was a topic all about comparing each of Survivor’s final fours to various animals that best fit the description of how they played the game. The thread is still active to this day and is updated after every new season, with the latest final four players matched to their respective animal. Below are the definitions that sunsawed gave for each animal:
The Fox: Sets themselves up as the person to beat.
The Bear: The “Loyal Opposition.” A strong opponent chosen by the Fox because of their loyalty.
The Goat: A person who cannot win who is selected as an easy beat by the Fox and the Bear. The Goat’s loyalty is insured by a guarantee of 2nd or 3rd place.
The Bunny: A person selected because of their weakness to lose at the F4. The Bunny is also selected because of their general pleasantness.
Applying these definitions to the final four of The Australian Outback, sunsawed described Colby as the Fox, Tina as the Bear, Keith as the Goat, and Elisabeth as the Bunny. In sunsawed’s concept, Survivor almost always becomes a battle between the Fox and the Bear. Towards the end of the game, the Fox and the Bear become locked in a fight for Immunity, for jury votes, and for the loyalty of the other players. It has been a commonly held belief over the years that Colby (the Fox) made a mistake taking Tina (the Bear) to the Final Tribal Council rather than Keith (the Goat), where he would have more than likely have won with ease.
The thread is a good read and brings up some interesting ideas, however, sometimes sunsawed’s animal comparisons don’t quite fit, and when applied in certain seasons can become quite convoluted. It’s for that reason why most of these animal terms haven’t stuck with the wider Survivor fanbase over the years. But one of them did – the goat. Below is sunsawed describing the game of Survivor in a nutshell:
Obviously the key to a successful alliance is to find a Goat. Being a Fox makes you vulnerable as you are going to be held responsible for most of the conniving and backstabbing. You need to either find someone you can beat or establish that you are clearly dominating the game and deserve to win by your skills.
This is one of Survivor’s most prevailing strategies and it is wholly dependent on finding and utilizing the goat. The popularity of sunsawed’s thread and the influence of Survivor Sucks back in the early days of Survivor is very likely to have been responsible for the increased use of the term goat within the hardcore Survivor community.
I recently spoke to sunsawed about his classic thread and how he came up with the concept of the goat. I wanted to know whether he derived the term from the “hero or goat” analogy made popular in sports journalism or whether it was something he came up with independently. Here is what he said:
“The Goat, as I thought, was meant to be chattel – unattractive prey. Clearly carried out of the loop on purpose. Someone who was actively willing to lose to you, like Keith Famie from S2, Outback, which is not a bad deal if 2nd place gets $100K.
As far as the Hero/Goat dichotomy, that hadn’t really occurred to me. But it does seem that Survivors using the term in the context of the game, notably Rob Mariano in regards to Phillip. Boston Rob was really looking for a Stink Bug.
Now whether players see an ideal Goat as obedient chattel or a Stink Bug is for them to determine. I don’t think looking for a Stink Bug as a good idea strategically.”
It’s interesting that sunsawed never really thought about the “hero or goat” concept when he wrote about the goat all those years ago. But his idea of unattractive prey is just as valid, and ties into the hero or goat definition regardless of whether it was intentional or not. I would say that it was a combination of both sunsawed’s definition and the sports term that led to the increased use of goat within the Survivor world- they both play into each other.
The term continued to grow in the fringes of the Survivor community, particularly following Survivor: Thailand when winner Brian Heidk dragged Clay Jordan (pictured above) with him to the Final 2. At the time, Clay was the biggest example of a goat we had ever seen; whereas Brian was perhaps the most obvious Fox that Survivor had ever seen. It was the clearest presentation of the concept sunsawed had laid out and cemented the goat analogy within Survivor lore.
But while the term goat had been bandied around by Survivor superfans for a number of years, it didn’t make its first appearance on the show itself until Survivor: All-Stars in 2004 (I could be off on this. If so, please let me know in the comments if it was used prior to this). In Episode 7 of Survivor: All-Stars, former winner Ethan Zohn broke the game down into one simple Charlie Brown like sentence – “You’re either the hero or the goat”. What better person to first introduce the word goat to the Survivor lexicon than Ethan, the guy that in Survivor: Africa won two goats in a Reward challenge that he then had to barter for at a local Kenyan market.
Ethan’s use of the term was very much the same one used by sports reporters, and with his background playing soccer it is most likely where he had picked up the phrase (rather than from a dedicated Survivor forum). But Ethan using the word goat on the show only increased its usage within the Survivor community because it tied in perfectly with sunsawed’s original concept.
There hasn’t been a season since The Australian Outback where people haven’t discussed who was the goat. It has only increased in recent years with the impact of social media and Survivor’s strong online presence. Visit any Survivor forum or listen to any Survivor based podcast and you are guaranteed to find a discussion of Survivor goats.
While the word only came up intermittently on the show since Ethan’s use of it in Survivor: All-Stars, in recent years the word makes at least one appearance in every season. Whether it is Boston Rob in Survivor: Redemption Island describing Phillip Shepard or Kass describing Trish in Survivor: Cagayan, or Shirin making reference to it in her Survivor: Worlds Apart cast bio. We even heard the word as recently as the Survivor: Worlds Apart season finale when Mike Holloway stated that he didn’t want to take the easy route by dragging two goats to the end – the goats in this scenario being Rodney and Will.
In conclusion, I think we can say that the origin of the goat developed through a combination of the “hero or goat” dichotomy, popularised within the sports industry due to its historical meaning and relationship with the often used “scapegoat”, and the hardcore fanbase’s persistent use of the word over the years inspired by sunsawed’s original Survivor Sucks thread. Both versions bleed into one another and help propagate the other one. Other Survivor buzz words have come and gone, but “goat” is the one that has stuck and will live on forever; proving that goat really is the greatest of all time.
If you have any other examples of Survivor players using the word “goat” on the show, please let me know in the comments.