"Upset" in horseracing

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Nov 14 18:07:08 UTC 2002

I only saw the stories in NYC newspapers and the Washington Post, and thought while I was reading them that the writers, with the sports-reporter's sure grasp of the obvious, should have made more play on the coincidence, if "upset" had had that established sense.  But the woman Doug Wilson cites has certainly read much more than I had.

I still would like to know when the idea that that race gave the word that sense originated.

Perhaps we can suppose that the sense gained currency outside of horseracing through Upset's upset of Man o' War, so that it seemed like a novelty to those who only followed tennis or football.
The Historical NYTimes is moderately tedious to search, but perhaps a check for "upset" and football or upset and tennis before and after 1919 might show something.  The searching I did in the latter 19th C for upset and racing turned up some stories about boat races, but there I think probably the reference was always to a literal overturning of one of the boats.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>
Date: Thursday, November 14, 2002 11:28 am
Subject: Re: "Upset" in horseracing

> Good show. I didn't believe the "Upset" story, but now I can
> substantiatemy position.
> Here is a Web mention of the myth about "Upset", from about a year
> ago. (I
> found the assertion about the word origin here and elsewhere on
> the Web but
> without attribution.)
> http://www.seabiscuitonline.com/guestbook14.htm
> <<... for years it has been lore in racing that the use of the
> word to mean
> the unexpected defeat of a favorite originated with Man o'War's
> loss to the
> racehorse Upset. It's a great story, but unfortunately, it doesn't
> hold up.
> According to Dorothy Ours, who is currently writing the definitive
> Man o'
> War biography, Chain Lightning, this race has nothing to do with
> that use
> of the word "upset." She was able to locate numerous incidences in
> whichthe word was used by journalists in this sports context prior
> to that race.
> Indeed, when Man o' War lost, journalists covering the race
> pointed out the
> remarkable coincidence that he lost to a horse named Upset.>>
> -- Doug Wilson

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