Daily Archives: December 19, 2011


You surely know this short word – with its sound like a rimshot – from one place (if you know it at all): “Jingle Bells.” The second verse goes as follows:

A day or two ago
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank;
Misfortune seemed his lot;
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.

Not every version of “Jingle Bells” you’ll hear has it this way; aside from all the ones that don’t have this verse at all, there are quite a few that change the wording a fair bit – Bob Yewchuk, who suggested this word, has saved me the research time; he tells me the following:

* Rosemary Clooney and Boney M use “upset” instead.
* Elvis Presley’s version is baffling. He uses the word, but two lines earlier he sings “Misfortune seemed his life”; he could have made a rhyme, but for some reason he chose not to.
* Natalie Cole changes the entire couplet to “We got into a drifting bank, and then we kissed a lot.”
* Smokey Robinson sings the first four lines of the verse, and then the last four lines of the chorus.
* In my collection of Christmas carols, the following artists use the upsot in their version of “Jingle Bells”: Mitch Miller, Mormom Tabernacle Choir, Patti Page, Perry Como and Willie Nelson.

So… why upsot? You can guess, I’m sure, that the word we would normally use there is upset. And the upshot would seem to be that with the setup of “seemed his lot,” the rhyme was playfully changed to upsot.

But, though we will only encounter it in modern usage in direct reference to “Jingle Bells,” upsot can be found in a variety of usages that don’t all refer to James Pierpont’s 1850 composition and 1857 publication of the song. (Pierpont was 28 when he wrote it.) Bob has again saved me the research time; he has sent 15 different citations (not bad for a word that’s not in the OED), found with the aid of Bartleby.com and Project Gutenberg.

There’s this one, from The Attaché, or Sam Slick in England (1843), by Thomas Chandler Haliburton (the first international best-selling author from Canada, and the man for whom Haliburton County in Ontario is named): “they couldn’t build one that could sail, and if she sail’d she couldn’t steer, and if she sail’d and steer’d, she upsot; there was always a screw loose somewhere.”

And then there’s this one, from Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves Georgia Narratives, Part 1: “She remembers the days of war, how when the battle of Atlanta was raging they heard the distant rumble of cannon, and how ‘upsot’ they all were.”

And on the other hand there’s one from Confessions of an Etonian (1846), by “I.E.M.”: “On my getting into the saddle, to try him along a few streets, Mr. Turner added this very disinterested advice— ‘Now, don’t you go and hammer a good horse like that ere over the hard stones. A parcel of little ragged, dirty-nosed boys, run athwart, and upsots a respectable individual.'”

In every case it’s in the context of a nonstandard dialect. But should we stop and wonder how it got there, well, if get becomes got, then why mightn’t upset become upsot? Although vowel gradation (ablaut) is supposedly no longer a productive inflectional form, we still do it occasionally, as witness the oft-scorned dove past tense of dive (dived is the “proper” form, people sniff). And indeed the OED shows sot as a dialectal past-tense form of set that had a certain presence in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Upsot may have also carried an overtone of drunkenness.) As to the present-tense form in the third quotation – well, it could be the author’s inventive overextension; all the other instances Bob has found are past tense or past participle.

But if you don’t like change, well, you need to go back to the original version of the song, anyway. Oh, the word upsot is in it, though the words of the verse are slightly different – the last line in the original is “And we – we got upsot.” But the music is actually noticeably different. The modern version is very simplistic major-key stuff suited to easy singing by small children. The original version sounds rather more like a Victorian parlour song, with slightly more angular progressions. Give it a listen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYLRZMooJm0.

I first heard the original version in a concert very near where it was composed. I was at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. The university was founded two years after Pierpont composed the song, less than two miles away by street (meaning less than five minutes twenty seconds for a bobtail nag with, as the third verse says, a speed of two-forty – i.e., 2:40 per mile). It was written about sleigh races on Salem Street in Medford… around Thanksgiving, actually. Its original title was “One Horse Open Sleigh.”

There’s a plaque at 19 High Street, Medford (where it was composed), commemorating its composition. It notes that Pierpont was living in Georgia when it was copyrighted and published in 1857. He stayed in the South for the rest of his life, in fact. He wrote a lot of songs in his life – including several supporting the Confederacy in its effort at secession. His father, a Unitarian minister, was a chaplain with the Union army. We can imagine they got somewhat upsot at each other over this.