Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "(Over)whelmed"

Welcome to Mailbag Friday, where we answer your burning questions about the origins of words and phrases. Ivete L. of New York, NY asks: "You can be overwhelmed, and I suppose you can even be underwhelmed. But why can't you be just plain whelmed?"

As a matter of fact, you can be whelmed, but only if you're feeling particularly lyrical or anachronistic. The word shows up in poetic usage, mostly by writers from a bygone era. A few literary examples:

They saw them whelmed, and all their confidence
Under the weight of mountains buried deep.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

We perished, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
—William Cowper, "The Castaway" (1799)

How can I, whelmed by a flux of talk, meditate upon the Way?
—Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1901)

As you might be able to tell from these examples, the old, poetic verb whelm can mean roughly the same thing as overwhelm: "overcome, as with emotions or perceptual stimuli," as the Visual Thesaurus defines it. Originally, as it developed in fourteenth-century Middle English, whelm meant "to overturn, capsize." By Shakespeare's time, it could also mean "to cover completely with water, submerge," as in the line from The Merry Wives of Windsor, "Give fire! She is my prize, or ocean whelm them all!" From there whelm was extended to refer to being overcome by immaterial forces.

Meanwhile, the word overwhelm was making a similar transformation, from referring to literal submersion or capsizing to more metaphorical feelings of helplessness in the face of something very powerful. The over- prefix originally served to drive home the topsy-turviness of the root form whelm; as with words like overturn or overthrow, the main sense of the prefix is inversion, a turning over. When overwhelm went down a more figurative path, it joined up with some other over-words like overcome, overpower, overrun, and overtake, where the prefix suggests a potent force taking hold and running roughshod.

Over time, however, the whelm part of overwhelm became less and less familiar to English speakers (except perhaps for literature majors). This loss of transparency happens all the time, when a derived form lingers even though the root has fallen by the wayside: think of the hap in hapless or the couth in uncouth. (Hap used to mean "luck" and couth meant "known, familiar, pleasant," in case you were wondering.) This kind of situation often leads to jokey antonyms, like gruntled playfully used as the opposite of disgruntled, or kempt as the opposite of unkempt.

In the case of overwhelm, underwhelm developed as a facetious flip-side in the mid-twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1956, but with newly digitized newspaper databases we can take it back a quarter century earlier: in the October 10, 1931 edition of the Fresno Bee, the syndicated columnist Arthur "Bugs" Baer wrote: "The organized lawyers voted to repeal the eighteenth amendment by an underwhelming vote of two to one."

And what about just plain whelm? Some people would like to salvage the old word, but not in the poetic sense of capsizing boats. Being whelmed can strike a middle ground between being overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Blogger Rhett Burns, for instance, writes of a conversation with a friend about "how we tend to fluctuate between two opposite extremes":

The first extreme is being overwhelmed. I don't operate effectively or sanely in this state. Panic comes more easily. Stress is high. And while I'm very focused, I'm not very fun to be around.
The second extreme is underwhelmed. I operate too often in this state. I procrastinate. I'm not too concerned. Details get overlooked. Things don't get done. Inactivity sets in. And while I'm more fun to be around, I'm not very focused.
We both came to the conclusion that we just want to be whelmed. Not overwhelmed. Not underwhelmed. Just whelmed.

May we all find such a happy equilibrium.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 22nd 2008, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
I love this...and have a weekly email that people can receive for free called "Just Whelmed." It's a play on the idea that people don't want to be OVERwhelmed or UNDERwhelmed...they want to be 'just whelmed.' For folks who are interested, they should just go to http://justwhelmed.com


Friday August 22nd 2008, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Hope (Los Angeles, CA)
What a great way to start the day! Add to the list of the lost roots, ruth. What could it possibly mean she asks ruthlessly?
Saturday August 23rd 2008, 5:20 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
The state of "whelm" is the perfect place to be. Though it can be very difficult to maintain "whelm," each day upon opening my eyes, this has been my goal for quite a few years. After a serious illess doctors told me to "avoid stress" and take everything in stride.

In retrospect I realize they did not know about the state of "whelm." My next appointment, I will share with them the term for which they are searching. Great word...I love it. Thanks so much.
Sunday August 24th 2008, 4:14 PM
Comment by: languagenut
Well, it definitely means asking a question without any feeling of remorse or pity, may it be for the message conveyed in the question as in, "I am asking about a topic that might be considered a touchy subject to the answerer" or as in, "I don't care at all whether my way of asking is upsetting the answerer". Duhh? xD
Sunday August 24th 2008, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
I'm pretty sure Hope understands what it means to ask something "ruthlessly" -- her question is about the long-lost "ruth" part. "Ruth" used to mean "pity, compassion", a noun form of the verb we now recognize as "rue". It still lingers as a given name and surname, of course, making possible Tom Swifties like "'I need a home run hitter,' said Tom ruthlessly."
Monday August 25th 2008, 2:07 AM
Comment by: languagenut
Definitely one most interesting input, Ben. I have never been good at figuring out whether a given sentence has a Tom Swifty or if there is pure irony in the message. For example, in "She gave me a cold look as if I was a side dish she hadn't ordered".
In your opinion, do we have any of those in the sentence?
By the way, I must also congratulate you on the great work! As a translator, I must say VT is an awesome tool and I can only hope we have it for many years to come.

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How hatters got mad.
The smoky origins of "pipe dream."
The dilatory delights of "procrastination."