If you can overwhelm and underwhelm, can you also “whelm”?
Both overwhelm and underwhelm are common enough words, but they appear to imply the existence of a root word “whelm”. Does such a word exist and, if so, what does it mean?
The Oxford definition of overwhelm is as follows :
verb 1. submerge beneath a huge mass. 2. defeat completely; overpower. 3. have a strong emotional effect on. (ORIGIN from archaic whelm ‘engulf or submerge’, from Old English.)
As this makes clear, whelm is a word, but it is archaic and rarely used these days. And, what’s more, whelm and overwhelm actually have more or less the same meaning, although overwhelm perhaps suggests a more intense degree of being engulfed or defeated.
But it’s as if overwhelm has taken over the job of its root word, making whelm redundant. These days, the original word is generally used only in poetic or deliberately archaic language. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, used it in The Lord of the Rings.
The third sense of overwhelm listed above – have a strong emotional effect on – is a very recent development in the history of this word. And it’s from this that the opposite word underwhelm was coined. To underwhelm means, simply, to fail to impress or make a positive impact on, without any of the meanings to do with flooding or defeat. In other words, underwhelm evolved from overwhelm and not, curiously, from the rarely-used root word whelm at all.