I came across the phrase “pull off the upset” in the following sentence of Washington Post (January 4) article titled “Eight lessons the Iowa caucuses taught us.”

“In the early going last night, it looked like Paul might pull off the upset. But as votes streamed in, it became clear his ceiling was simply lower than his rivals. Paul wound up with 26, 219 votes - more than double the 11,817 he received in 2008 - but it still wasn’t enough to keep pace with Romney and Santorum."

As I am unfamiliar with the phrase "pull off a (the) upset,” I searched the definition online:

Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘pull off’ as a verb, meaning ‘If a vehicle pulls off, it starts moving.’

Oxford Dictionary registers "pull-off” as a noun meaning ‘an area on the side of a road where a motorist may park.”

Merriam-Webster defines ‘Pull off” as a verb meaning ‘to accomplish successfully against odds,” from which I can guess what “pull off the upset” means. Although I found no dictionary carrying “pull off the upset” as an idiom, there were a lot of quotes using this phrase in the Google search.

On the other hand, Google NGram shows the usages of “pull off a (the) upset” emerged in around later than 1960 and its noticeable rise around after 2000.

I’m curious to know (1) how widely or dominantly this idiom is being used today, and (2) what were popular alternative expressions (e.g. snatch victory from the rival’s big jaw) to “pull off a (the) upset” that were taken place with this idiom.

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    To pull off in this context is a standard idiom meaning achieve, despite apparently insurmountable difficulties". And upset simply means an unexpected result. It's a clumsy conjoining, because it's tautological. Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 4:13

2 Answers 2


I don't think that it is a particular phrase that was coined. I suspect that you'll find the popularity of the phrases scales with the use of "pull off".

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    Yeah. Not so much a popular idiom, as a dreary example of lazy hacks conjoining "pull off" and "upset" in a desperate attempt to make thir copy seem interesting. Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 4:10

"Pull off the upset" is commonly used to describe sporting events, which some say are like political campaigns with more intellectual activity. You can likely find a half dozen alternatives to this phrase in the sports page of the newspaper.

  • @xpda.For instance? Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 21:49
  • Here are nearly 3000 instances of pull off an upset, which is over 4 times more common than ...the upset. My impression is that xpda is correct - it's very much a "sports journalism" usage, and nobody would expect those hacks in particular to produce great prose. Commented Jan 8, 2012 at 21:26

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