Upset the applecart

Upset the applecart is an idiom that may have its roots in ancient Rome. An idiom is a word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom upset the applecart, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To upset the applecart means to spoil something, to ruin one’s plans, to upend a routine, to disturb a system that has been in place for some time. The idiom upset the applecart has been in use since the 1700s; the earliest know use is by Jeremy Belknap in his work, The History of New Hampshire. However, the Roman playwright Plautus’ play, Epidicus, written around 200 BCE, contains the proverb; “perii, plaustrum perculi,” which means “I’m done for! I’ve upset my wagon!” Related phrases are upsets the applecart, upsetting the applecart. Note that the word applecart is a closed compound word with no space or hyphen.


“I went up with Palace later in my career and I said to Iain Dowie then that a lot of teams when they get promoted then go into the market and bring people in and you have to be so careful not to upset the applecart with the people that have earned that promotion.” (The Manchester Evening News)

The DUPs Ian Paisley has lobbied for legislation on abortion, passed by Westminster during the collapse of power sharing, to now be handed over to the assembly, saying it would be “absolute folly” to intervene on issues such as abortion that might upset the “applecart”. (The Irish News)

She’ll have you know that she stayed in her last job for 10 years and she’s typically not the kind of person who wants to “upset the applecart.” (Forbes Magazine)

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