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I've thought for years that when you are upset, it means "you've just heard some unexpected news or something shocking, and as a result, you're not calm and probably you can't judge as correctly as usual." (I think it's a common translation found for the word "慌てた" in Japanese-English dictionaries.)

But I find in many English dictionaries, in paper, or online, it's said to mean "be irritated" or "be angry". Was I wrong, or is my explanation not wrong but a rarer usage?

If it means "be angry", let me ask two more questions.

  1. Has the meaning changed? Older English dictionaries don't tend to explain much in this regards. They only say "disturbing" = "vomitting" or so.
  2. Are there any English word that corresponds to my "old" meaning? "lost calmness" or so?
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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It is very common to read "be upset" as be meaning "to be bothered" [about something or with someone].

John was upset about the news that his dog was missing.

I hear it used to mean "to be angry" sometimes:

John is upset with you because he thinks you let his dog out.

However, being upset with someone is a very mild form of anger. If John were really annoyed the terms "angry" or "pissed off" would be used. Moreover, I would not consider this to be a translation of 慌てた (awateta) or, in present tense, 慌てる (awateru), which I think would be better construed as meaning to be confused or disconcerted about something. 慌てふためく (awatafutameku) seems a better candidate for "flustered" or "panicked" — that kind of upset.

Moreover, you can be upset about things that you didn't just learn about. You can be upset about things that happen over time.

Marvin has been upset ever since he started that new diet.

Upset comes from the term meaning "knocked over":

In reaching for a fork, Joe upset his champagne glass and spilled its contents all over the table.

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Thanks, Robusto. Your explanation is very lucid. I checked similar words in dictionaries, and now I think I've got a better repertoire of words for these confusing situations. I'm not upset with this word any more! :) - BTW I'm not sure if 慌てた (or the overall Japanese grammar) is perfect or past. –  teika kazura Jun 6 '11 at 6:50
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+1 for looking up the Japanese words –  Amr H. Abdel Majeed Jun 6 '11 at 8:55
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Merriam Webster gives the following relevant definition: emotionally disturbed or aggravated.

It also suggests the following synonyms: aflutter, antsy, anxious, atwitter, dithery, edgy, goosey, het up, hinky [slang], hung up, ill at ease, insecure, jittery, jumpy, nervy, perturbed, queasy (also queazy), tense, troubled, uneasy, unquiet, nervous, uptight, worried

It sounds like you're on the right track, but I would note that the definition does not necessarily require a recent event to cause an upset; someone who is upset can be in a general state of distress, even if that distress was expected. I've never heard upset used for anger. Where did you find the angry definition?

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Thanks, Christine Letts. In particular, the reference to the notion of long-term state of "being upset" has keened my understanding. At the same time, it gives me the impression that calmness is not necessarily important. I know some dictionaries define it as "unhappy". So maybe the emphasis is that your mind is displaced from the natural, usual state. Angriness is cited in the answer by Eri, and I found it at the wiktionary and online Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary. –  teika kazura Jun 6 '11 at 5:49
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I think the definition to "be angry" just identifies a more specific possible emotion of distress (or not being calm) that fits under the term "upset."

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of "upset" is:

emotionally disturbed or agitated

Collins English Dictionary includes the definition:

emotionally or physically disturbed or distressed

Cambridge Dictionary defines the word as:

worried, unhappy or angry

I think that your original understanding of the word in terms of the emotion is very common nowadays, although the scenario may not necessarily apply.

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Thanks, Eri, for taking time to reply. You give me the similar impression as Christine Letts' answer. –  teika kazura Jun 6 '11 at 5:50
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