Origin of the Word Upset

September 19, 2012 by Jonathan Becher 0

The English word upset has multiple definitions.  The most common implies an anxious uneasiness; as in “I am too upset to say anything.”  This emotional version also has a physical equivalent; “My stomach is too upset to eat anything.”

Watching sports on a lazy Saturday, I’m reminded of another common usage. In sports and in politics, an upset is to defeat a seemingly better opponent. My own favorite upset occurred in college basketball in 1991 when Duke defeated the heavily-favored and previously-undefeated UNLV in the Final Four.

Sports fans know this use of the word upset comes from an infamous 1919 horse race that Man o’ War lost to an unknown named Upset. Considered the greatest horse of all time, Man o’ War beat Upset the other five times they raced. In fact, this is the only race Man o’ War lost during his entire career. That’s an upset and a perfect reason to coin a new term.

It’s a fantastic story but, like many stories that seem too good to be true, this one is horsesh baloney. According to the LA Times, Man o’ War did lose to Upset that day but due to human error, rather than poor performance. A substitute starter had difficulty getting the horses lined up at the starting tape such that, when the race began, Man o’ War was backing up and “was almost left at the post.” Despite starting later than the other horses,

“to the astonishment of the crowd, Man o’ War was so fast that the horse nearly caught up to Upset and clearly would have overtaken the lead horse if the course was twenty or so feet longer.”

While this explanation ruins the emotion of the story, it doesn’t debunk the legend. According to the book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, New York University researcher George Thompson found the following in the July 1877 edition of the New York Times:

“The programme for to-day at Monmouth Park indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset.”

The Man o’ War race might have popularized the use of the word upset in sports but the article, published 40 years before the race happened, is incontrovertible proof it didn’t start there. Truth be told, I’m a little upset the legend isn’t true.

I won’t be upset if you follow me on twitter @jbecher.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

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