I'm reading a book Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder. When it comes to the word acme, the author gives the following example:

Last Saturday's upset victory over Michigan may prove to have been the acme of the entire season.

I'm confused about the word upset here. Generally, when a team won a match, people should be happy instead of upset. I can't find an example usage of upset victory in several dictionaries. What does it mean here?

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    The answers have explained what this phrase means. FYI, phrases that mean what you thought would be "upsetting victory" or "disappointing victory". E.g. if your preferred team loses, it's an upsetting victory by the opponents.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 17:46
  • The losers are certainly not happy about a game they expected to win... :D
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 0:32
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    Now I have to go check what Acme means, in this context....
    – Criggie
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 3:21

7 Answers 7


The word upset is used here with the meaning

(in sports) a surprising victory by a person or team that was expected to lose

So in this case, it was expected that Michigan would win, but instead the opposing team won, which was an upset victory.

It's not necessarily that anyone was disappointed by this victory, but rather that it was surprising.

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    Btw, upset victory sounds a little stiff to me as a native speaker. Usually I see just upset, like the dictionary's example: In the first upset of the season, the Hawks beat the number-one ranked Lions.
    – TylerW
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 11:21
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    @Tyler: I think victory is needed in the OP's example. "Last Saturday's upset over Michigan..." doesn't sound right to me.
    – TonyK
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 12:00
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    @TonyK interesting, a literal search for "last Saturday's upset" shows results with upset win, upset loss, and just upset. Maybe it was "victory" that was throwing me off. I would probably still just say "upset" for a win but that's just me.
    – TylerW
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 12:46
  • As a native BrE speaker I agree with @Tyler W that this feels slightly awkward. The answer is completely correct but to me 'upset victory' sounds like a rather clumsy smashing together of two nouns either of which could have done the job alone. Commented May 1, 2021 at 19:55
  • American English speaker here--it sounds a little wrong but I think that's from the redundancy. "upset over" and "upset victory over" communicate exactly the same thing. Commented May 1, 2021 at 22:06

Since the early 1800s, the literal meaning of “upset” has been to overturn something or knock it over. That’s still what it means to upset an inanimate object. Some translations of the New Testament, for example, say that Jesus “went into the Temple and upset the tables of the money-changers,” that is, pushed them over.

From there, it developed several metaphorical senses. Phrases like “upset the apple cart,” or “upset the boat” mean to cause trouble or throw everything into chaos. Almost immediately after it became a synonym for “knock over,” we see people using “upset” as an adjective to mean a person was in distress. Today, though, it means that someone is worried or angry. Another sense of the word that’s stayed closer to the literal meaning is “an upset stomach,” a feeling of nausea as if you were on a boat that had turned over.

A more formal example is, “Nationalism in the 1800s upset the balance of power in Europe ....” or “In her best work the solution completely upset the traditions of traditional mysteries.“ These both connote a challenge that shakes up the established order, which might be a holdover from an even earlier meaning of the word. Back in the 1400s, an upset was an insurrection. (That meaning of the word is no longer used.) This sense is used of abstract nouns, not concrete objects or people.

The meaning you’re asking about is related to these other meanings. As others have brought up, an upset in sports is a victory that surprises everybody. Metaphorically, it’s overturning the table of results or creating a serious challenge to the top team. In this sense, it can be used in several different ways: “The underdog upset the favorite,” “The result was a major upset,” or as you correctly used it, “an upset victory.”

  • 4
    Great answer! Welcome to ELL and thanks for the answer!
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 23:24
  • 5
    This should be the accepted answer.
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 0:29
  • This answer is disruptive.
    – Nat
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 1:26

The word upset has several meanings.


upset noun (CHANGE) [ C ] an occasion when someone beats the team or player that was expected to win: It would be quite an upset if the favourite didn't win.

In upset victory, upset is an attributive noun and acts like an adjective.

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    Another definition from the same source is perhaps easier to understand: "to push or knock something out of its usual position, usually by accident, especially causing it to fall: Our dog upset the picnic table, spilling food everywhere." Thus in the OP's example, Michigan winning would have been the (very much) expected result. That they did not figuratively knocks things out of their expected order.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 3:10
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    'Upset' is indeed being used as an attributive noun, because it is an upset to what is expected. I think it's important to note that the noun 'upset' has the stress on the first syllable, while the adjective or verb 'upset' has the stress on the second syllable. So if you say this out loud, put the emphasis on the 'up' rather than the 'set'. Commented May 1, 2021 at 20:07
  • @jamesqf - I think it would be valuable for there to be an actual answer linking the "unexpected victory" meaning to the "knocked from usual position" meaning. It helps people feel like there is some rhyme or reason to it after all. Just a thought. Commented May 1, 2021 at 21:37

I'm confused about the word upset here

It means that expectations were upset.

An 'upset victory' is one that overturns expectations.

And yes, it is sometimes shorted to 'upset', and yes, it has nothing to do with people being pleased or upset.


In short, "upset" here means "overturned" but referring to expectations. It's only an "upset victory" when the side heavily favored to win, loses instead.

Thus, the term is applied when there is a great expectation for one side to win that does not materialize. For example it can be applied to the US hockey team's win over the heavily favored Soviet Union in 1980 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_on_Ice). It can also be applied in the context of a competition itself when one side pulls far ahead of the other and they appear on the path to victory but the other side comes back and wins instead.


I think in this case, upset is used in reference to a previous prediction. The thing being upset by the victory is the prediction that the winners would originally lose. Upset in this case is used for its definition of knocking something over.


The winning team and its supporters were probably surprised and happy. The losing team and its supporters were probably upset (adjective: worried, unhappy, or angry).

It is worth noting that the same dictionary Seowjooheng quotes also has upset as a verb:

to change the usual or expected state or order of something.

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    This usage of "upset" is an adjective with the same meaning as in the idiom "upset the apple cart", the verb definition you quoted. It has nothing to do with people's emotions. So I think the first paragraph of your answer is going in the wrong direction, but your quote is exactly right. Commented May 1, 2021 at 1:37
  • I agree that emotions don't have anything to do with the idiom. After all, you could say the same thing about any game (some people are happy and others sad). An upset has the effect of upsetting standings for the playoffs. I don't have any specific data, but my strong impression from following sports for decades is that the word "upset" is more likely to be used later in a season when rankings have become more defined and the effect of an unexpected victory more pronounced. Commented May 1, 2021 at 11:49
  • Ah, English! "The upset victory upset fans so badly that many experienced stomach upsets, others rioted and upset the bleachers." :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 17:33

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