Upshot has been used in my presence about six times today. I know what it means in the figurative sense, and I assumed it was derived from sports so I looked up its etymology.

Dictionary.com confirms that it originated from archery: "originally, the final shot in an archery match."

I don't understand why the final result in an archery match was called the upshot, though. One source cited "Hunting with the Bow and Arrow" and used this quote

it was often customary to shoot a return round over the same field.

as though that were self-explanatory, but I don't see what that has to do with "up."

Why would the final shot be called "the upshot"? Was it shot straight up into the air? Did the archer have to aim up over the target because it was so distant? Is there a sense of 'up' that I am missing?

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    I suspect that archers shot down the course (is that what it's called?) to the target and up at the end. – Andrew Leach Dec 31 '12 at 19:34
  • I'm only venturing a guess here, but if field archery was much like golf--archers walking a good distance from target to target--then perhaps the final shot was meant to signal that a group had finished the course, that it was safe for the next group of archers to play the field. – tylerharms Dec 31 '12 at 19:38
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    @tylerharms: that's not at all like any archery competition I've witnessed. When people are shooting, the only safe place to be is behind the archers; no archer in his right mind would shoot at targets that had people behind them, even if said people were "far away". That said, I don't believe "upshot" has any currency in archery nowadays, so I don't know whether it is, indeed, derived from archery, and if so, why. – Marthaª Jan 1 '13 at 0:12
  • These all sound like very very entertaining but convenient folk etymologies. – Mitch Jan 1 '13 at 14:26
  • I think the upshot is that no one knows. – Hot Licks Jan 13 '16 at 20:34

Via the Talk Wordy To Me blog, Hunting with the Bow and Arrow by Saxton Pope explains:

In ancient times when archery was practiced in open fields and shooting at butts or clouts, men walked between their distances much as golfers do today, and having completed their course, it was often customary to shoot a return round over the same field. This was called the upshot, and has descended into common parlance, just as many other phrases have which had their origin in the use of the bow and arrow.

However, Word Origins (1999) by Dhirendra Verma gives another reason:


Upshot, which currently refers to outcome, result or conclusion, was originally an archery term, meaning the final shot in a match. This use of up to mean the end or conclusion is found in such phrases as The time is up (run out, ended).

And What's in a Word (2000) by Webb B. Garrison gives yet another explanation:

Upshot. Villagers of medieval Britain took their archery seriously. Big matches were gala affairs, affecting the social standing of every man who took part. Many were conducted like modern sports events; the fellow who won a given round moved up to the next. It wasn't unusual for competitors to be so closely matched that the last arrow of a round would determine its outcome.

In such circumstances a single arrow caused one man to drop out and the other to move up toward a new opponent. Upshot came to name the shot that could raise an archer up to a new round. Used by Shakespeare and Milton the sporting word entered general speech to signify any result or conclusion, no matter how remote from activities on the village green.

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  • When you wrote “Upshot came to mane the shot …”, did you intend to write “Upshot came to name the shot …” or “Upshot came to mean the shot …”? – Scott Jul 17 '17 at 20:21

This is speculative but I think it may come from up-draw.

From OED –

upˈdraw, v.

a. To draw up to a height or from a lower place; also, to draw (a bow) to the full.

It then follows that upshot would be the final drawing and shooting of the bow.

When a bow is drawn the arrow points at the ground, as the string is drawn back the arrow and bow are brought horizontal. I believe that is the meaning of up-draw, the drawing back of the string and the raising of the arrow and bow to finally aim at the target.

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I followed Andrew Leach's excellent suggestion, and I think he may be right. It seems that field archery matches were walked over distance much like in golf. Targets were "down the field," so it makes sense that turning around to shoot back toward the start would be "shooting up- field." I have an email in to an archery group to confirm this.

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  • @AndrewLeach I will happily remove this answer if you want to post your own, since it belongs to you after all. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 31 '12 at 23:31
  • I dont think there is anything to support this answer apart from inductive reasoning, ie I dont think there is anything to support this answer. I have competed in Archery and shooting an arrow back up the field is just about the last thing anyone would ever do, especially considering your voice can easily outrange and out - attention - grab an arrow shot from a conventional recurve bow by quite a ridiculous margin. This is a case where someone has decided that x sounds like it could mean y and therefore x means y. – Anton Feb 18 '16 at 15:44

"Upshot" means final result. It is not very probable that "up+to shoot/a shot" develops the idea of final result. It may well be that "shot" originally was something else and transformed later into "shot".

The English word upshot reminds me of German Abschluss, from schließen, to close. Abschluß is the end of something.

So I would not search in the word family to shoot but in the word family to close, Latin claudere/cludere, German schließen, English to shut. I can imagine that "-shut" can be transformed into "shot".

I know cases where the prefix up- does not mean upwards but corresponds exactly to German or Latin ab. I have to see whether I can find an example.

Added: One such case would be to wash up, which corresponds to German abwaschen.

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  • This seems like the likely origin. While using some concept from archery seems tempting at first glance, archery contests, even in the past, were rare and limited to certain classes, while the term seems more pedestrian. And when one observes that no single archery idiom seems to apply, one senses that the archery origin is grasping at straws. – Hot Licks Jan 14 '16 at 20:21

It's from the Hebrew word for simple, I think PShUT (?) --- פשוט. Also, I've seen Aramaic as a root of the word.

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    The OED and all of Hugo's sources suggest otherwise. – Matt E. Эллен Oct 19 '13 at 6:16
  • The Hebrew & Aramaic seem still convincing as source. As a matter of fact "פשט", another Hebrew word, is also mentioned in the on-line source, Wiktionary. – user54556 Oct 20 '13 at 23:53

If the final event of an archery contest was shot at a greater distance than the other events, the competitors would have to aim higher than they did before. The 'Upshot' may have been descriptive slang for the last event.

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    Welcome to EL&U. You seem to be suggesting something the OP has already considered: "Did the archer have to aim up over the target because it was so distant?" You can improve your answer by linking to a definitive document or by providing other support for your hypothesis. – Lawrence Jan 13 '16 at 20:42

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