The English word upset has multiple definitions. The most common implies an anxious uneasiness; as in “I am too upset to say anything.” This emotional version also has a physical equivalent; “My stomach is too upset to eat anything.”
In sports and in politics, an upset is to defeat a seemingly better opponent. My favorite upset occurred when Duke defeated the heavily-favored and previously-undefeated UNLV in the college basketball 1991 Final Four.
Sports fans might know this origin of the word upset comes from an infamous 1919 horse race in which Man o’ War lost to an unknown named Upset. Considered the greatest horse of all time, Man o’ War beat Upset the other five times they raced against each other. In fact, this is the only race Man o’ War lost during his entire career. That’s an upset and a perfect reason to coin a new term.
It’s a fantastic story but, like many stories that seem too good to be true, this one is horsesh baloney. According to the LA Times, Man o’ War did lose to Upset on that day but the loss was due to human error, rather than poor performance. A substitute starter had difficulty getting the horses lined up at the starting tape such that, when the race began, Man o’ War was backing up and “was almost left at the post.” Despite starting later than the other horses,
to the astonishment of the crowd, Man o’ War was so fast that the horse nearly caught up to Upset and clearly would have overtaken the lead horse if the course was twenty or so feet longer.
While this explanation ruins the emotion of the story, it doesn’t debunk the legend. According to the book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, New York University researcher George Thompson found the following in the July 1877 edition of the New York Times:
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.
The Man o’ War race might have popularized the use of the word upset in sports but the article, published 40 years before the race happened, is incontrovertible proof it isn’t the origin of the word upset. Truth be told, I’m a little upset the legend isn’t true.