UNDERDOG: a person or group in a competition, usually in sports and creative works, who is popularly expected to lose


Be careful how you respond to the public announcements about who is the anticipated victor and who is the underdog.

Thomas Dewey, Governor of New York, was the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States in 1948.  He had lots of notoriety, money, and prestige.  Right up until the last minute is was clear to everyone that he was going to beat  Truman, who had succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the night of the election, when American went to bed, it was a done deal in most peoples’ minds.  The Chicago Daily Tribune took a chance and declared Dewey the winner, only to wake up the next day to discover that Truman had won!   The underdog had come through at the last minute, and the Trib had egg all over its face.

Underdog appears to be a word that emerged in American English in the 1880’s without much of a history.   It means exactly what it says:  in a dog fight, there is an overdog and and underdog.    The overdog is more powerful and has a reputation which leads one to believe it will win in a dog fight.   The underdog, on the other hand, is not as flashy and does not flex its muscles in public quite as much.   In all likelihood, the underdog will be beaten unmercifully.

But there are miracles, and then there are human events that defy public opinion.   Dewey’s defeat by Truman turned out to be magical, and Truman went on to be a celebrated President, bringing the US through the end of World War II with strength and dignity.  Scorned at the time as a simple haberdasher from Missouri, he has become a highly-regarded President whose ability to relate to the public may have been his greatest asset.   His commentary “The Buck Stops Here”, in reference to the fact that blame and power reside in the desk of the President is a statement of how Truman saw his role.

In today’s world the underdog term is a popular reference to folks in an election battle, a sports team not doing very well in its season, or the middle or lower class in the economic war surrounding us.   In each case, it is popularly understood that the team designated as the underdog will lose…and that the more powerful overdog (a term seldom heard) will triumph.   The bully will defeat the victim.   The more financially supported candidate will smother the poorer underdog.

It’s not always that way, and when it happens that the underdog wins, there is great celebration by people who tend to support the underdog in all kinds of situations.   In the recent gubernatorial campaign in Rhode Island, the third party candidate, Robert  Healey, garnered nearly 1/3 of the votes, having spent only $36 on his campaign.   The other two candidates, Gina Raimundo (who won) and Clay Pell spent millions of dollars on their campaigns, with Pell being seen as the underdog, and Healey as the under-underdog.   With his successful accumulation of votes, it was clear that Healey had made a statement about the way feisty Rhode Islanders value the expenditure of big money to win elections.   Neither the underdog nor the under-underdog won the election, but the message was profound.


Image Credit:  Dan Miller

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