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one-upmanship

Printable Version Pronunciation: wên-êp-mên-ship Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass

Meaning: The tactic of using psychological means to gain an advantage in every situation, the drive to better others by cleverly outfoxing rather than outperforming them.

Notes: Unlike our previous silly words, today's Good Word lays a much greater claim on legitimacy because it comes with a complete derivational family. We can trace it derivationally to an adjective, one-up, as a one-up salesman who takes every advantage. This adjective underlies the verb, to one-up someone. The verb allows a noun, one-upman, someone who tries to always be one-up on everyone. This noun justifies today's Good Word, the practice of one-upmen.

In Play: Though the basic meaning of this word is competitiveness, it implies competition by annoying if not underhanded tactics: "I get so tired of playing games of one-upmanship with Chris Cross: I almost had a date with Leah Tarde when he walked up and told her he had ballet tickets—which I know he only bought later." A good one-upman is driven to compete at every level: "Martin's one-upmanship landed him under the table last night at a drinking party with his Irish friends."

Word History: Today's Good Word was foisted on English as recently as 1952 by Stephen Potter (1900-1969), the British author of a series of putative 'self-help' guides on how to defeat superior competitors by unsportsmanlike psychological tactics. Get one up on everybody! His first book, Gamesmanship, was so named to distinguish his techniques from sportsmanship. In this book he discussed the advantage of breaking your opponent's flow, playing more weakly at first to create overconfidence in an opponent, and other means of throwing an opponent off guard. Gamesmanship was followed by One-upmanship, a book about the meaning of today's word. His books became so popular that -manship has almost become an independent suffix in English, spawning brinkmanship, grantsmanship, and a few others.

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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