Thursday, October 02, 2008


Two callers to my show promoted the theory that the word upset, meaning a victory by an underdog, was due entirely and originally to a horse named Upset that defeated the legendary Man o’ War.

The defeat is a matter of racing history. At the Sanford Memorial Stakes, held on August 13, 1919, Upset won by half a length after Man o’ War got boxed in by other horses.

The issue is, is that where we got the word upset referring to unexpected results in a sporting event, an election, or any other type of contest? This provides us with an opportunity to review a basic principle of etymology: precedence does matter. In other words, if someone claims that a term originated in 1919, but evidence shows that it existed earlier, the claim cannot stand.

A classic example is the belief that the word hooker, referring to a prostitute, originated with Civil War General Joseph Hooker and his lusty regiment. If true, that would put the origin somewhere between 1861 - 1865. But it shows up as early as September 1835 in The New York Transcript, and in 1845 in N.E. Eliason’s Tarheel Talk. The good General and his antics may have reinforced the use of the word, but it wasn’t named after him as legend would have it.

But I digress; back to upset. Meaning an overturning or overthrow, it dates back to 1822. That’s exactly what happens in an unexpected victory: the favorite is overturned, overthrown, defeated. The horse was named for this idea, not the other way around. Perhaps Upset, the horse, deepened the use of the word, but he didn’t invent it.

By the way, the same is true for Man o’ War. In 1449, it meant a soldier. By 1484, it was a commissioned naval warship. The name Man o’ War was chosen by its owner’s wife (Mrs. Eleanor Robson Belmont) to honor her husband’s service in World War I. It was meant to provoke the idea of a formidable opponent.

SIDEBAR: The story of Man o’ War

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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