Remarkable Story of the Sports Term "Upset"

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Wed Jun 4 15:48:05 UTC 2003

Last year we had a thread about the origins of the sports term "upset."
The OED's earliest citation for the sports noun is dated 1921; I don't
believe anyone here antedated that.  I have now found a posting by Ben
Zimmer on alt.usage.english in which he contributed the following earlier
citation from ProQuest Historical Newspapers:

LOCAL RACING ENDS IN DAY OF UPSETS; Five of Six Favorites Defeated in
Final Card of Aqueduct Program.; New York Times; Oct 7, 1917; pg. 100

This citation is crucial to the question of whether the term originated
because of the horse Upset's 1919 victory over Man o' War.  It is now
clear that the term predated the Man o'War loss.  We are then left with
the remarkable conclusion that the horse Upset was named Upset because the
owner liked the word or fantasized that this horse would grow up to
accomplish an unexpected victory (a strange fantasy because it implies
that the horse would not be that great prior to the upset), and that the
horse then grew up coincidentally to be in a position to pull off one of
the greatest upsets in sports history and did pull it off.

Zimmer also contributed pre-1917 usages of "upset" as a verb and as a
noun, in baseball and in politics.  However, I believe that these are
usages in a general sense of "upsetting the apple cart" rather than in the
specific modern sports sense of a victory by an underdog.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at     

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