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I’m a non-native speaker of English, and I’ve always felt that “upshot” was used to denote positive results. But I’ve come across a few cases recently where negative or neutral outcomes were enumerated after the use of “upshot”. For example, “The upshot was that everyone got an incurable disease.”

Is “upshot” intended for positive outcomes only? Or mostly? If yes, what word is used for negative outcomes?

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While I find this question interesting (without doing any research, I might've assumed upshot was reserved for positive outcomes), the answer to your first question ("Is 'upshot' intended for positive outcomes only?") is readily available. I suggest rewording it, as a recently learned statement, rather than posing it as a question, and then focusing on your second question (Is there a word that can be used for negative outcomes?) – lest this be closed as general reference. –  J.R. May 25 '12 at 9:58
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4 Answers 4

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Although the "up" in the word may lead you to infer a positive connotation, technically "upshot" denotes an outcome with neither a positive nor negative connotation.

So it is equally valid to use the word for negative, positive and neutral outcomes.

"Upshot" is not to be confused with "upside," which is exclusively positive.

Such confusion does happen from time to time. Here's one example, where someone wrote a comment using the word upshot instead of upside, to contrast with the later usage of downside:

Its main upshot is that everyone knows their height and weight, and can quickly calculate a BMI, while the main downside is that you need a pretty typical frame with a typical fat-muscle-organ breakdown and whatnot.

Its main upshot is..., while the main downside is... is incorrect, since the writer is initially talking about an advantage, not a conclusion or end result.

Reference: Original post can be found here.

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nice comment about "upside" –  J.R. May 25 '12 at 10:35
    
-1 for the unsubstantiated assertion that "technically" the word "upshot" is neutral. I don't think it's meaningful to talk about what words "technically" mean - they actually mean whatever people normally use them to mean. Per my answer, a quick survey of written usage clearly shows that the word is used far more often of negative than of positive outcomes. –  FumbleFingers May 25 '12 at 15:45
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@FumbleFingers: I must respectfully disagree with you. If we define "technically" to mean "according to the dictionary," then his assertion is entirely correct. Moreover, Wordnik returns several examples where the word is used positively, negatively, and neutrally, with no preponderance in any particular direction (e.g., "The upshot was a 221-point gain in the Dow Jones" & "the upshot is households have been backing down their debt and other financial obligations, but we still have … a mortgage problem"). Plus, your won/lost experiment isn't conclusive. –  J.R. May 25 '12 at 18:15
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@FumbleFingers: "Where there's an obvious positive/negative implication, it's more often the latter" - perhaps so, but my point is, how many of those citations have neither a positive nor a negative connotation? Quite a few. Which brings us to zooone said 13 hrs ago: "Technically 'upshot' denotes an outcome with neither a positive nor negative connotation, so it is equally valid to use the word for both negative and positive outcomes," never saying which was more prevalent, just that both were valid, which clearly they are, as is plainly shown with the link you just provided. –  J.R. May 25 '12 at 23:10
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@J.R.: Point conceded. The bias is nowhere near as strong as I originally thought - and as you imply, even if it were to be statistically "significant", that doesn't make it semantically significant. I shall fall on my sword... –  FumbleFingers May 26 '12 at 14:38
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My experience is of it being a synonym for result or conclusion, in British English and Business use.

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@DavidSchwartz Did you intend to place that comment elsewhere? The excerpt doesn't contain 'upshot' and I don't see how it's relevant. –  Dan Neely May 25 '12 at 15:14
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What an interesting conversation this has been. Well, the upshot is I've learned a lot about the word upshot.

The dictionary conglomerate OneLook gives this definition for upshot: a phenomenon that follows and is caused by some previous phenomenon. Macmillan reads: the result of a process or an event. Merriam-Webster1 says quite simply, the final result : outcome. The OED2 offers words such as an end, completion, climax, result, or conclusion, and gives examples of it being used in positive, negative, neutral, and yet-to-determined contexts:

The upshot of all was, our Lord vanquished the devil.
The upshot was, that I found myself overwhelmed with debts.
Suppose a man was to talk in that manner when he's doing business, what would be the upshot?

In short, the dictionaries are conspicuously mum about whether upshots are usually good, bad, or indifferent.

Which brings us to how the word is used in contemporary contexts: literature, journals, magazines. To address this, I offer three links:

You are welcome to scroll through those pages if you don't want to take my word for it, but the upshot is, the word is used much like it's defined. Be it in the realm of economics, religion, law, sports, international conflict, evolution, or just the hardship of humans trying to eke out a living, some set of circumstances comes to a head – whatever falls out at the end is deemed the upshot of the affair. Out the tens of thousands of possibilities found within those three links, I'll offer just one (a scientific use, and a very fitting one at that, since all this research has made my brain hurt):

And because the emissions of the various inhibitory neurons will not be in step with one another, the upshot will be inhibition that can last for a few tens of milliseconds. (Rodney Cotterill, Enchanted Looms: Conscious Networks in Brains and Computers)

Which brings us to the last question that the O.P. asked: What word is used for negative outcomes? Well, obviously, upshot will work fine, although that word can be (and is often) applied to decidedly positive contexts as well.

For alternatives, you might consider: disaster, debacle, catastrophe, calamity, setback, or misadventure, words with meanings that connote decidedly negative outcomes.


1No link given; too many ads.
2No link given; subscription only.

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Good answer! Thank you for not making people wade through annoying spamvertising. You might reconsider withholding the OED link, though, because apart from private subscriptions, people at schools or libraries can often access them, and it would be a shame to not let them click through to a professional, spamvert-free site with a(n:) historical record of the word in English. –  tchrist May 26 '12 at 0:55
    
@tchrist: As for withholding the OED link, I just figured that anyone with the proper access credentials could simply go to the OED website and type in "upshot" ~ if they felt the need to look at the page. –  J.R. May 26 '12 at 1:00
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A quick look at the British National Corpus suggests that upshot does not collocate particularly with positive words. More research would be necessary to establish whether that initial impression can be substantiated.

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That doesn’t seem too surprising. I wouldn’t think there would be a stronger correlation with positive words than with negative words, because I don’t personally think of upshot being either positive or negative. It’s just a cutting to the chase, a quick summary, the short version of the story, maybe even the conclusion portion of the tale’s condensed Cliff’s Notes version. –  tchrist May 25 '12 at 19:19
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