The Original Scapegoat

If you’re not familiar with the show “The Office,” it’s a sitcom focused on the lives of a dozen or so people who work at a fictional office paper sales company called Dunder Mifflin, in the Scranton, PA office. The manager of the Scranton office is Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) and Michael has a habit of botching common phrases.

The 21st episode of the show’s third season has one such example of a Michael Scott linguistic mistake. In that episode, according to The Office Wiki, “Dunder Mifflin Scranton is thrown into damage control when some paper is released with an obscene watermark of a cartoon duck and mouse having sex.” Michael, being the boss, is expected to shoulder the blame. But if you’re a fan of the show, you know Michael isn’t the type who likes to be held accountable for his actions. Instead of taking the blame, he states “It wasn’t me [who put the watermark on the product]. They are trying to make me an escape goat.”

Michael obviously meant “scapegoat,” not “escape goat.” Being a scapegoat simply means that you were blamed for someone else’s misdeeds; it has nothing to do with a runaway goat. Michael was, laughably, wrong.

Except that he really wasn’t.

This coming Monday, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement. The holiday has biblical origins; the Old Testament states that on this day, Jews should do no work, refrain from eating and drinking, and should focus on asking for forgiveness for their past sins. There’s also a very specific instruction that an animal sacrifice be made: “and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.”

Monday’s observance will involve a lot of prayers and atonement, very little eating, and in many cases, no work being done. For reasons of Jewish law not worth going into (and to be honest — after all, that’s the whole point — I only have a basic understanding of why anyway), you won’t see any animal sacrifices on Monday, though. That hasn’t happened in a long time.

But at the beginning of the holiday’s observance, it most definitely did. In an earlier part of the Old Testament, God instructs the Jews to atone for sins as follows: “Aaron [the Jewish high priest] shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” To translate a bit: the High Priest is to find two goats from his flock and pick one at random to be sacrificed. The other is “marked for Azazel,” which is often taken to mean “sent off into the wilderness.”

The goat that was set free was still lost to the community, but it wasn’t traveling alone. Before being set off into the wild, the high priest would symbolically place the community’s misdeeds upon the goat’s head. Those sins that couldn’t be atoned for via pray, requests for forgiveness, or the animal sacrifice were carried off by this goat — one that literally (albeit again, symbolically) took the blame with it.  

The modern word “scapegoat” comes from this ritual — “scape” is a shortening of “escape” and “goat” is, well, the goat. So, yes, there really was an “escape goat,” originally, and Michael Scott was, kind of, right. 

Bonus fact: Michael Scott’s best-known phrase is “that’s what she said,” which he uses to turn a seemingly innocuous comment into something inappropriate by making it a double entendre. Scott’s character is based on Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent from the original, British version of “The Office,” but Brent didn’t use that phrase. The original phrase used by Brent was “said the actress to the bishop,” which means the same thing as “that’s what she said.” As U.S. audiences were unaware of that British colloquialism, the show’s producers changed the phrase for Carell’s character.

From the Archives: Getting the Goat: The goat that actually does go up in flames most years.