One-upmanship is a spirit of competition in which one tries to stay a point ahead—one up—of the competition, usually figuratively. The word connotes an unwillingness to back off and allow one’s competition to keep the upper hand. For instance, dueling tech companies might practice one-upmanship by alternately releasing smartphones with ever faster wireless speeds, or a politician might practice one-upmanship by arranging a photo op every time his opponent gets positive press. More examples are below.

The word came about in the middle 20th century, likely from the older adjective/adverb one-up. While one-upmanship is the most common form by a significant margin, it also appears as oneupmanship, one-up-man-ship, and one-upsmanship (this one possibly influenced by gamesmanship),1 as well as in several other, rarer forms.


Kevin Durant and LeBron James play a perpetual game of anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better. … The one-upmanship never ends. [USA Today]

The elements of their unfolding drama, two talented MCs trapped in a potentially deadly game of ghetto one-upmanship, was painfully familiar to hip hop. [Hip-Hop Matters, S. Craig Watkins]

Lott’s work is an example of statistical one-upmanship. He has more data and a more complex analysis than anyone else studying the topic. [“Myths of Murder and Multiple Regression,” Ted Goertzel]

In the former, participants mirror each other’s behavior; if A boasts, B boasts more grandly, causing A to boast still further, and so on in this one-upmanship game. [Family Therapy, Herbert Goldenberg and Irene Goldenberg]

For the longest time, they were portrayed almost exclusively as bloodletting exercises in one-upmanship – women seemed to exist purely to vie for existing resources. [New Statesman]


1. One-upmanship in the OED (subscription required)

3 thoughts on “One-upmanship”

  1. I believe that one-upmanship (and gamesmanship) originated with Stephen Potter; if not, then he popularized it. As he used it, it connoted competition through somewhat unsportsmanlike means, intended to win by putting your opponent down, disconcerting him, putting him off his game. Of course, two can play that way, but the implication is that the winner will be the one who plays the meta-game of one-upmanship better, rather than the actual game being played. That connotation gets lost in your definition.

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