We’ve all been there. We’ve had a bad day, something went wrong, someone hurt our feelings, or maybe we’re just not feeling well physically–times when the best word we can find to describe our state is upset. We all know what we mean–that nothing’s quite right, that things are unsettled, that the order has been overturned.
But have you ever paused to wonder at the word itself? It seems, at first glance, to be fairly straightforward…but when you look up the history, you’re in for a surprise!
Upset has been in the English language since the mid-1400s…but not as we know it. Rather, it meant “to set up, to fix.” Wait–what? That’s the opposite of what it means now! But until the early 1800s, that was the sole use of the word, and the one used for our current meaning was in fact overset, which is now obsolete.
It wasn’t until 1803 that the modern use began to appear, with the meaning of “overturned, capsized”–so a boat would be upset. In 1805, the metaphorical sense of mental discomposure came along. And it wasn’t until the 1830s that it began to be used for an unsettled stomach.