"upset" redux

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Jul 6 04:32:38 UTC 2013

I've recently started a new language column for the Wall Street Journal called
"Word on the Street," focusing each week on a word in the news and its history.
My first column was on the use of "cyber" as a noun (http://on.wsj.com/cyberbz),
and my second, for this Saturday's paper, is on the sporting usage of "upset"
(http://on.wsj.com/upsetbz). I also talked about "upset" on the NPR show "Here
& Now":


For this column I relied on the research by our own George Thompson back in


I didn't manage to antedate George's 1877 cite of "upset" used as a noun, but I
did find relevant horse-racing cites for the verb going back another couple of
decades. I believe these match the "defeat unexpectedly" meaning rather than
describing horses literally toppling over, or figuratively upsetting
calculations or expectations.

1857 _Spirit of the Times_ 5 Sept. 355/1 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.
1867 _Turf, Field, and Farm_ 7 Sept. 146/4 Throughout the day the fielders had
the best of it, as only two favorites won, while many which were heavily backed
were upset.
1868 _Turf, Field, and Farm_ 7 Aug. 515/3 In nearly every race the favorite was
upset. [from _London Sportsman_ 25 July]

The column also mentions the interesting speculation from Dorothy Ours, author
of "Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning," that Upset, the horse that upset Man
o' War, may have been so named because of the word's political connotations --
Upset having been foaled by the mare Pankhurst (after the family of British
suffragettes), who was in turn sired by Voter. At the very least there may have
been a double entendre in the horse's naming, rather than simply some sort of
onomastic determinism at work.

On a side note, it's interesting to see that the horse doing the upsetting in
the 1857 cite was named Dipthong, suggesting a long history for the misspelled
version of "diphthong" noted by Neal Whitman for its often pejorative use:



Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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