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Friday, July 5, 2013

Wimbledon ‘Upsets’ Get Linguist Thinking

Serena Williams lost in the early rounds of Wimbledon. (AP)

Serena Williams lost in the early rounds of Wimbledon. (AP)

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.”

Guest:

  • Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal

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