Overwhelm and Underwhelm

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Overwhelm and Underwhelm”

  1. Whelm is a word in Canada, even if rarely used. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary (p. 1655 1998 edition) defines it as v.tr. literary 1 cover with a great mass of water or earth etc.; engulf. 2 overpower emotionally; overwhelm.

  2. Rod,

    Underwhelm certainly is a word. As I say, if you are underwhelmed by something that you are not impressed by it; it is disappointing. You can find lots of examples with a quick Google search, such as :

    “Apple’s iPad may underwhelm Hollywood.”

  3. I can’t help regarding “underwhelm” as a nonstandard word popular with entertainment writers. I know it’s in the dictionary, but I wouldn’t use in in any but a facetious context.

  4. I use all three variants: whelmed most often, underwhelmed about half as often, and overwhelmed occasionally

    I also frequently use the word gruntled to describe feeling okay without being upset (i.e. disgruntled) about something

  5. I am curating a group art show in portland, oregon during the month of Feb. 2011 that is based on this notion of being “whelmed” or “overwhelmed”. in our instance, artists are encouraged to expand on all facets of defeat, emotional effect or a large/small number of anything…it will be on display at Courier Coffee Roasters Cafe in downtown Portland from the first thursday of Feb. until the First Thursday of March. Right next to Powell’s Book Store!

    thanks for the brainstorming!

  6. I wanted to know other words that could mean overwhelmed, if anyone could give me some that would be great.



  7. Before underwhelm became a buzz word, I had assumed (knowing whelm means to completely cover or to satisfy, and overwhelm means to excessively cover or satisfy) that the opposite would be “unwhelm”. If you think of whelmed as meaning “satisfied” you then have “over satisfied” and “unsatisfied”. Or with cover, excessively cover, or incompletely cover. The use of “in” or “un” essentially meaning “not” are common prefixes to modify a word to show something has failed. The use of “under” for “underwhelm” seems a simplistic assumption that the opposite of “over” is “under”. However I can’t think of under being used as a prefix in any other context (though sub is used as a prefix and it essentially means under or below).

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