Overwhelm is a Verb, Isn’t It?
A reader appalled at the use of overwhelm used as a noun sent me this example of email-speak:
Just as an example, if you enter “passive revenue” into Google, you’ll get 12,400,000 hits. That’s a recipe for overwhelm – not for building your business.
Sharing the reader’s distress at the sight of overwhelm used as a noun, I launched a Web search to see how common the usage might be. I found more examples than I expected.
Food sites seem to be especially fond of using overwhelm as a noun:
Avoiding stacks of clipped recipes and overwhelm
5 Quick Tips for Overwhelm
Simple Meal Planning: Reducing Overwhelm
Writers about stress and business management also seem to favor the usage:
8 Steps To Get Beyond Overwhelm!
All this pressure to succeed…begins to build up inside of us until one day we are locked in the throes of overwhelm, numb to its debilitating effects on our bodies and quality of life.
Are you feeling overwhelm?
Getting Over Overwhelm (a book title)
Recognizing that the nominal usage of overwhelm is unusual, one writer took the trouble to define it before using it:
… “overwhelm” can be described as the numb feeling of desperation that we experience when life seems to be spinning out of control.
The term I associate with this definition is “emotional overload.”
I went to the Oxford English Dictionary to see if overwhelm has ever been used as a noun and found that it has:
overwhelm (noun): the action of overwhelming; the fact or state of being overwhelmed; an instance of this.
This definition is illustrated with citations from 1596, 1742, 1863, 1961, and 1990. In four of the quotations, overwhelm is used poetically. The fifth and most recent citation is from a pop psychology book called Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child:
They [therapists] are there in case a person goes into emotional overwhelm. Overwhelm can occur when a person regresses into toxically shamed or enmeshed emotions.
As we’ve seen in discussions of words like conversate, enthuse, and liaise, some newly introduced vocabulary arouses strong emotional reactions in some speakers but not in others. I’ve tried to analyze why I find “emotional overload” acceptable but cringe at “emotional overwhelm.”
My reaction may have something to do with the fact that the word load is commonly used both as noun and verb: “They loaded the wagon with a load of hay.”
The word whelm, whatever its etymology, is not ever used as a noun in current English.
Another reason is that it seems wasteful to turn the strong, evocative verb overwhelm into an unneeded synonym for overload or stress.
overwhelm verb: to bring to sudden ruin or destruction; to engulf; to crush; to defeat utterly or conclusively.
Used literally or figuratively, overwhelm is a verb to convey calamity:
In two minutes, tsunami overwhelms Fukushima Daini
Irish overwhelmed by a “tsunami of homelessness”
West Africa Overwhelmed by Ebola
The jocular use of ‘underwhelming” in trivial contexts to mean disappointing is another waste of this powerful verb:
After seeing the entire season, I found myself generally underwhelmed.
The most underwhelming sequel of 2012
Watch Dogs Review: An underwhelming start for Ubisoft’s next-generation franchise
My guess is that because psychologists have latched onto it, overwhelm as a noun will catch on in popular speech. Careful speakers and writers may want to give it a miss in non-playful contexts.
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