Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Debunking the Legend of "Upset"

Some stories about word origins recall the old Italian saying, se è non vero, è ben trovato: even if it is not true, it is well invented. One such too-good-to-check story involves the sporting usage of upset, which, it is said, came to be because an unfavored horse named Upset beat the great thoroughbred Man o' War.

It's true that Man o' War did lose the only race of his career to Upset, at Saratoga’s Sanford Memorial Stakes in 1919. And it was truly an upset, though Man o' War lost the race chiefly due to a mix-up at the start of it, when the horses were not lined up properly. (There were no starting gates in horse-racing back then.) But as I explain in my "Word on the Street" column for The Wall Street Journal, Upset didn't beget upset to refer to the defeat of a heavily favored competitor.

The story that Upset was responsible for the use of upset in sports was, for a time, a plausible one. When the sporting sense was added to the Oxford English Dictionary's entry for the noun upset in 1993, the first citation given came from 1920, in an article about a Canadian indoor tennis championship. One might conjecture that the Sanford race the year before really was the reason that upset was being used for tennis (just as it was used to describe all the upsets at Wimbledon this year).

But in the time since the OED editors worked on that entry, the story of upset has been greatly filled out, as we can follow the trail of the word on sports pages in digitized newspaper databases. In February 2002, in a post on the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english, I surveyed New York Times articles that used the word upset, and it was clear that it was already in use in horse-racing and other sports like baseball before the famous 1919 race.

Later in 2002, the New York University librarian George A. Thompson looked into the matter more comprehensively in a post on the American Dialect Society mailing list. Thompson found unequivocal use of upset as a noun in horse-racing as early as 1877. In that year, The New York Times reported that a program at New Jersey's Monmouth Park racetrack "indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset."

For my Wall Street Journal column, I kept looking into the early history of upset in sporting journals, and I found that the use of the verb to mean "defeat unexpectedly" goes back another couple of decades. Here are a few examples:

At the York August meeting, there were only four runners for the Chesterfield Handicap of 208 sovs., one mile, and the favorite, Ellermire, 5 yrs., 7st. 121b., was upset by the Dipthong colt, 3 yrs. 6st. 2lb. —Spirit of the Times, Sept. 5 1857, p. 355

Throughout the day the fielders had the best of it, as only two favorites won, while many which were heavily backed were upset. —Turf, Field, and Farm, Sept. 7, 1867, p. 146

In nearly every race the favorite was upset. —Turf, Field, and Farm, Aug. 7, 1868, p. 515

(It's notable that the horse doing the upsetting in the 1857 citation was named Dipthong, suggesting a long history for the misspelled version of diphthong noted here by Neal Whitman for its often pejorative use.)

Looking for these early uses of upset, it's important to distinguish the novel sense from meanings that were already circulating in the nineteenth century. The original, literal meaning of upset was "to topple" (as a verb) or "an act of toppling" (as a noun). So a horse could be upset if it fell over and didn't finish the race. But in the examples above, the upsets do not appear to have been achieved by a horse being literally toppled.

There were also more figurative uses of upset floating around, relating to things being thrown into disarray. If a horse won a race when he wasn't expected to, one could say that he upset expectations, or upset the calculations of the oddsmakers. Both the literal and figurative meanings were likely at play when upset was extended to usage for unexpected defeats.

There are still some unanswered questions in the upset story. First, why was Upset so called in the first place? Was it just a matter of wishful thinking? Was it a kind of onomastic determinism, with Upset serving as an aptonym like the sprinter Usain Bolt or the writer Francine Prose?

I'm partial to the theory floated by Dorothy Ours, author of Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning. Ours notes that Upset's mother was the foal Pankhurst (Emmeline Pankhurst was famous British activist for women's suffrage) and Pankhurst's father was Voter. So it would make sense if Upset was honoring this naming legacy with a political meaning of upset rather than a sporting one. At the very least, the word worked as a kind of double entendre by the time the horse was named in 1917.

Another question that remains is how the etymological legend of Upset spread. Contemporary descriptions of the 1919 race, as well as later descriptions from the '20s onwards, simply noted that Upset was "aptly" or "appropriately" named. Only later was the name Upset built into an origin story. A commenter on Joe Posnanski's blog remembers it from a question in the original Trivial Pursuit game in the 1980s. Regardless, the legend became firmly entrenched in the '90s and '00s.

I did find a weaker version of the legend in a 1962 column by Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie: "The term 'upset' in sports gained considerable stature back in 1919 when a horse actually named Upset beat the wonder horse, Man o' War." That may in fact be true: certainly upset gained traction in sports reporting starting in the '20s, and Upset may have had something to do with that. So let's give some credit to the scrappy colt, even if he didn't achieve full-fledged eponym status.

Ripley's Believe It or Not, Aug. 19, 1947

For more on upset, check out my interview on the NPR show "Here and Now."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.