PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
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

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

June 6 Comment

Introducing A New Here & Now Website

Coming June 9, 2016, Here & Now listeners and visitors will experience our stories and journalism online in a whole new way.

June 3 Comment

Teenagers Create Impromptu Exhibit At San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art

As the pair toured the museum, they wondered if they could do better. So 16-year-old Kevin Nguyen decided to get creative.

June 3 3 Comments

‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Author Explores Conformity, Mental Health In New Teen Novel

Matthew Quick published his fourth young adult book, "Every Exquisite Thing," this week.

June 2 13 Comments

Do Meal Kits Provide Great Taste Along With Convenience?

Resident chef Kathy Gunst tested a multitude of meal kits, and gives co-host Jeremy Hobson the inside scoop.