Remarkable Story of the Sports Term "Upset"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Jun 4 16:25:06 UTC 2003

Actually, on November 12, 2002, under the heading "Upset" in Horseracing, I submitted passages retrieved from the NYTimes online, by searching for the words "upset" and "racing" in the same story.  I found citations of "upset" used as a verb as far back as 1865, in the context of "upsetting the calculations, or expectations," of horse-players, and the following from 1877:
 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.  New York Times, July 17, 1877, p. 8  There were other late 19th C. citations of the word used as a noun in this sense, as for instance This proved another upset for the favorites, Rosary, a very cheap one, winning in 1:17 ΒΌ, Andrian second, and Eva S. third.  New York Times, May 17, 1883, p. 2.

I noted at the time that I did not turn up a citation of the verb in the context of "this horse upset that horse" and still haven't, though neither have I looked.

The coincidence that the horse that beat Man o' War would be named Upset lead us to a discussion of the Shandy-Lack theory of onomastic determinism.  See my submission of November 15, 2002 and several replies.

I would still like to have references to early post-1921 statements that it was Upset's defeat of Man o' War that gave the word "upset" this sense.  It's common knowledge -- I knew it -- but where did it begin?


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