Sidetracking the golden goose

From James Gavin’s 8/8/10 review of Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter (by Randy L. Schmidt), NYT Book Review:

Each of her love affairs foundered, and someone [notably her brother or her mother] was always there to discourage any relationship that might sidetrack the golden goose.

The Golden Goose is a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, in which the goose in question has feathers of pure gold, and anyone who tries to pluck one is instantly stuck to the bird (further complications ensue, and there’s a backstory).

It’s hard to see Karen Carpenter as metaphorically such a golden goose, though she could undoubtedly have been described as a (metaphorical) cash cow, or as a goose (or hen) who regularly laid a (metaphorical) golden egg (as in the Aesop fable), through her singing.

That is, you could sidetrack a golden-egg-laying goose (divert it from performing its valuable function), most spectacularly by killing it, in the hope of getting at its presumed internal store of gold. Of course you could also kill a golden goose in the hope of getting its golden feathers, but sidetracking or diversion wouldn’t keep it from having golden feathers or cause it to lose them.

Still, the two formulaic expressions are similar enough that they can be blended, to yield kill the golden goose, which is a good deal shorter than kill the goose that laid/lays the golden egg(s). Or kill the golden goose could be seen not as formal blending or a shortening of the longer formula by displacement of the word golden, but as a conceptual displacement of the property of goldenness from the goose’s eggs to the goose itself (a kind of hypallage).

In any case, though it’s not in OED2, the shorter version seems to have gained currency in English, as in this quote (one out of a large number), where the connection to the golden-egg-laying goose is explicit:

Don’t Kill the Golden Goose!
It’s a well known fact that dead geese cannot lay golden eggs! (link)

No doubt there are people out there complaining about such usages as misquotations. And probably people who visualize the goose that laid the golden eggs as itself golden (well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?).

One Response to “Sidetracking the golden goose”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I would go further than you do and assert that, nowadays, most references to the “golden goose” are in fact to the “goose that lays the golden egg”. The Grimm story is a much less generic metaphor, and it’s not one of the better-known fairytales that every schoolboy knows. All the online dictionaries that define “golden goose” give the golden-eggs sense and not the other.

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