White House officials had expected to deliberated for several days over how to respond to North Korea's proposal for direct talks between the countries, which South Koreans officials had first conveyed by telephone this week. But Mr. Kim's offer of a leader-to-leader meeting accelerated, if not upended, the administration's plans.North Korea Asks for Direct Nuclear Talks, and Trump Agrees

Hi, I would like to know the meaning of "if not upended". I looked up the word, upend in a dictionary, and it says:

Set or turn (something) on its end or upside down.Oxford

But still I do not understand it. Please help me.

  • The phrase is a restatement of "accelerated".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 11:49

4 Answers 4


Turn upside down is a common metaphor for putting things into a state of confusion.

X if not Y is more or less what it means in formal logic: "if Y is not true then X is". So here it is saying that Mr. Kim's offer has at a minimum accelerated the Trump Administration's plans but it could also be taken that they had to throw them away and make completely new ones.


"if not" is in itself ambiguous. Does it mean "although not" or does it mean "even also"? See this question Usage of 'if' and 'if not' to mean 'and perhaps even/also' for discussion.

Were the administration's plans upended, or were they not (quite) upended?


He's a terrific tennis player, if not world class. [Is he world class or not, or may he become world class? Are we not sure?]

He's an excellent officer, if not material for the general staff. [Maybe he'll become a general?]

One possibility here is that the writer is unsure whether the recent events have or have not changed (upended) the administration's plans, because the writer isn't sure what the administration's plans were.

I don't think this has anything to do with evolving idiomatic English.

See also this https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/10/ambiguity set of comments by readers about the meaning of the sentence "I'm a good tennis player, if not a great one," where there was a 44-17 split.


Xanne, can you provide a reference? I saw a segment on cable news about when and where that expression arose, and they couldn't trace it back to before mid-2000s.


It is rapidly evolving idiomatic English.

Another example is "the spokesman walked the claim back". This usage is under 10 years old (meaning to renege on commitment or claim) and has the bizarre property of looking like a newly-coined, German-like separable verb: "the President walked his entire proposal, which had been clear from the beginning, back."

The past is sometimes prologue.

  • Thanks. So if not upended means if it does not walk the claim back? Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 5:24
  • "Walking the cat back" is from at a minimum 1997, probably earlier. It meant, and means, to figure out how the current circumstances originated and, in spy terms, find out who did the betraying.
    – Xanne
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 19:59
  • 'upended' in this sense means 'ipset', 'messed up', or 'thwarted'.
    – eSurfsnake
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 23:47

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