Psycho Babble

When the Upshot Is a Downer

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By Jessica Love


 

Last year, I was reading a survey of recent research on aging and cognition when I came across something like the following: the upshot is that associative memory is particularly affected by aging. Hmmm, I thought. This was curious because unless associative memory had been shown to improve with age, this sentence made no sense to me. And, given what I knew about associative memory—this is our memory for the relationships between things, what we tap into on the way to family reunions as we try to remember whether Aunt Martha is married to Uncle Herb or Uncle Harry—it most certainly doesn’t. This, in a peer-reviewed journal! I reread the passage several times before it finally dawned on me that perhaps I didn’t really know what upshot meant. For years, I’d confidently assumed upshot could refer only to a positive outcome, and now, it seemed, I was wrong. A quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed my suspicions. There exist exactly zero senses for which upshot has a positive connotation. Well, okay, there is an instance from 1837 where the word is slang for merry-making. But that’s slang!

Everyone has an upshot. Everyone has a word he hasn’t quite got right. This is because we rarely learn words explicitly. We learn words as we encounter them: in conversations and, more often than not, in the texts we read. From about age three until we graduate from high school, we pick up an astonishing nine words a day. Is this because books underline these unknown words, affixing each with a tidy definition? Yes, there are some textbooks that do just this. But most of the time, we’re left to our own devices. So we make assumptions from the contexts in which the word appears: the topics, as well as the exact sentences. We even—and this is likely what got me into trouble—use the way the word sounds. Is it really that surprising that I came away from upshot thinking what I did, after having also encountered uplift and uppers and things are looking up?

Wondering if anyone in particular had assisted me in my misconception, I cornered my aunt.

“What if,” I asked her, “you were told by your doctor that, after examining your test results, the upshot was you only had a month to live?”

She started laughing. “I’d say that was a downshot!”

In fact, four participants in my informal poll of eight—two of them non-family members, no less—shared my initial understanding that an upshot could only be positive. Was my sample random, my design rigorous enough to withstand peer-review? Of course not. Might it still suggest that a small—and possibly substantial—proportion of the population believes similarly? I think it does.

This is how word meanings change. A famous example—its new meaning occasionally resisted, but by now largely accepted—is the word hopefully. For hundreds of years, it meant in a hopeful manner, much the way merrily means in a merry manner. If you heard the sentence Hopefully Aunt Martha made it home before, say, 1940, you would take it to mean that Martha’s march was a hopeful one, perhaps because today was her birthday and she’d asked Uncle Herb to plan her a party (it is Uncle Herb she married, right?). But today, of course, hopefully means something quite different. Coming across that sentence today, you might wonder whether Aunt Martha made it home at all.

So you heard it here first. Editors will try to fight it. English instructors the world over will scribble at it until their pens bleed. But the upshot is, upshot is on the move.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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