Overwhelm is a Verb, Isn’t It?

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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 conversateenthuse, 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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16 thoughts on “Overwhelm is a Verb, Isn’t It?”

  1. I have the same reaction to overwhelm being used as a noun. I have been watching a series recently that involves a family with a police officer. She has on multiple occasions said “attempt to extort an officer.” It is driving me crazy. You don’t extort the officer, you extort MONEY from an officer (or something else). Makes me want to write the screenwriter and tell them to subscribe to this blog!!

  2. Bernadette,
    Your example for “extort” is going into my idea file. In the words of the professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”

  3. Isn’t the core issue the improper selection of the preposition used in the prepositional phrase, ‘ xxxx overwhelm’?

    It’s not ‘for overwhelm’, but rather, ‘to overwhelm’, for the examples provided at the start of this blog post. Many of the examples provided have multiple grammatical errors.

    ‘That’s a recipe to overwhelm (somebody) – not to build your business’

    ‘8 Steps To Get Beyond (Being) Overwhelmed!

  4. With this usage having a four hundred year history, you might say that “everything old is new again,” but I think it belongs in the same bin with the popular use of ‘fail’ as a verb (urban/internet dialect).

  5. Reading this article I was stopped by the words “not ever”
    The word whelm, whatever its etymology, is not ever used as a noun in current English

    Why would you not use “never’

  6. Never-concise
    Not ever-literary trick to add emphasis

    Any word that follows “not” has increased emotional impact on the reader. By engaging the amygdala, emotion-laden phrases lead to higher potential for remembrance.

  7. I think it belongs in the same bin with the popular use of ‘fail’ as a verb (urban/internet dialect).
    Hasn’t fail always been a verb?

    You don’t extort the officer, you extort MONEY from an officer
    Likewise evacuate. When I hear that “a hundred people were evacuated” I always think, oh god, I hope not. I really, really hope that is just bad grammar….

  8. People who “steal” a verb to use it as a noun, or vice versa, are possibly:

    semi-literate (They were poorly taught or just don’t know any better.)
    lazy (They are too apathetic to find an appropriate word.)
    trying to sound trendy (They think the usage sounds right or cool, or they hear it and don’t know it’s wrong. See semi-literate.)

    These boneheads are ruining the English language, and they are making it even more confusing and difficult for those who are trying to learn it.

  9. Just to stick my 2 cents in a couple of days late…I had never heard of overwhelm used as a noun. It took me by surprise at first; I tried it on for size to see how I liked it, and I didn’t see a problem with it. When it was pointed out that its usage as a noun goes back hundreds of years, all the more reason to just accept its use as a noun and move on to more important things. However, I think I would agree that since it’s not really in widespread use, it might be best not to use it in formal communication.
    As far as “underwhelm,” I think that’s a great word, and I do use it when I can. I mean, you can say “I was not impressed” or something, but underwhelmed is way funnier and conveys a little more. It goes beyond being unimpressed; it’s being unimpressed by something that was really hyped to be super-impressive.
    @S Churchill: I think you’ve missed the point of this discussion. Try re-reading it.

  10. Whelm not a noun? The Oxford Dict. Online has:

    An act or instance of flowing or heaping up abundantly; a surge:
    the whelm of the tide

    @Curtis … You don’t like fail as a verb? LOL … It’s was a verb first! The noun … even in French … came from the verb.

  11. Very nice review of this usage. I have to disagree about “underwhelm,” though. The whole point is humor. “Disappoint” is a perfectly respectable verb, but it isn’t funny.

  12. Actually, Bernadette, the OED contains a few examples of extort being used to denote “…practis[ing] extortion on (a person)”. One example being, “They did extort & oppresse the people.”

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