It’s down to the wire at Wimbledon, the men’s finals are on Sunday, the women’s on Saturday. And some of the biggest names will not be participating, because there have been a lot of upsets—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova all lost in the early rounds. These upsets had linguist Ben Zimmer thinking about the use of the word “upset.”
And that got him thinking about a horse race in 1919.
“There’s a popular story that involves a race that happened in 1919,” Zimmer said. “The thoroughbred Man o’ War, who was a great racehorse of the day, lost the only race of his career to a horse named Upset, believe it or not.”
In popular mythology, this race gave rise to this usage in different sports of the word “upset” for the unexpected defeat of a favorite.
However, Zimmer says, there are some holes in this story.
Zimmer found the term “upset” used in horse racing in 1857, decades before the famous 1919 race.
In the nineteenth century, the term “upset” was often used to mean “overturn,” like the phrase “upset a boat” as in “capsize a boat.”
“So it wasn’t a big stretch for that to carry over into horse racing,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer thinks that the horse race of 1919 helped to popularize the term “upset” in the popular imagination.
But perhaps it got too popular.
Zimmer found a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune writing in 1928 that the term was overused, because it was convenient for newspaper columns.
“I think sport writers might still be guilty overusing that term,” said Zimmer, “although in a case like Wimbledon this year it’s certainly justified.”
- Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. And after two weeks of some wild tennis, it is down to the wire at Wimbledon. The men's finals are on Sunday. The Women's finals are tomorrow. But some of the biggest names in tennis will not be participating because there have been a lot of upsets this year. That got Ben Zimmer thinking about the word upset and how we are using it. He's a linguist and writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal. Ben, welcome.
BEN ZIMMER: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, so we often think of upset when we're talking about some person in sports who wins despite being the underdog. But it goes pretty far back, that word upset.
ZIMMER: It does go far back. There's a popular story that involves a race that happened in 1919. The thoroughbred Man o'War, who was a great race horse of the day, lost the only race of his career to a horse named Upset, believe it or not. So the way it's told in racing lore is that because of this race, which was one by the horse Upset, that gave rise to this usage across different sports for an unexpected defeat of a favorite.
But there are some holes in that explanation, the biggest hole being horse racing was using this term upset as both a noun and a verb for many decades before that famous 1919 race.
HOBSON: Yeah. You found an example dating all the way back to 1857.
ZIMMER: Yeah. I found that one in a sporting journal based in New York called The Spirit of the Times, and it was - the favorite Ellimere was upset by the Dipthong Cult. Now, in the 19th century, that word upset had a lot of different meanings. It could mean actually overturning something, like if you capsize a boat, the boat would be upset.
And it had some metaphorical meanings already, too. So it wasn't a big stretch for that to carry over into horse racing to talk about what happens when the favored horse is beaten by another one.
HOBSON: Well, so based on your research on this, are we using the term correctly now?
ZIMMER: It's probably overused by sportswriters. It's interesting. I think after that famous horserace of 1919, even though the horse Upset wasn't responsible for the term, that race helped to popularize it in the popular imagination. And so sportswriters were using it a lot. And already in 1928, there was a sportswriter in the Chicago Tribune who said, we're overusing this.
And the only reason we're using it is because it's a short word, and it fits nicely into headlines.
ZIMMER: So I think that sportswriters might still be guilty of overusing that term although in the case like Wimbledon this year, it's certainly justified.
HOBSON: Well - and political writers too. I mean, it's used in politics all the time.
ZIMMER: That's true. There are many different types of upsets in politics as well, and that's the usage that goes back a ways, too. In fact, one possibility for the reason that that horse was named Upset was because it had these political connotations. In fact, his mother was a mare named Pankhurst, which is named after the British family that led the fight for women suffrage. And Pankhurst's father, the sire, was named Voter. And so, there was this whole line of political names. So perhaps that was why Upset was called Upset in the first place.
HOBSON: It must be difficult to look back and find all these uses of upset from way back in the 1850s when upset is also a word that you would use in a different way to say, I'm upset about something.
ZIMMER: That's true. I mean, it did have these many different meanings. But if you know where to look in the newspaper databases, you can restrict your search to just articles about horse racing, for instance. And that way, you can really zero in on how this usage developed before the famous horse race of 1919.
HOBSON: Ben Zimmer is a linguist. He writes a column on language for The Wall Street Journal. Ben, thank you so much.
ZIMMER: Thanks. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.