Printable Version
Pronunciation: hwelm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, transitive

Meaning: 1. To turn over and cover something, as to whelm a bowl of food with a plate to keep the contents hot. 2. To be swamped and covered by huge amounts of water, snow, mud, and the like, as to be whelmed by an avalanche or mudslide.

Notes: We use overwhelm "to overcome, to go beyond capacity" all the time and sometimes news can even be underwhelming. Overwhelm is clearly a word made up of the prefix over- plus a mysterious verb whelm that no one seems to use any more. We overreact when we react to much, overwork when we work too much; are we overwhelmed when we are whelmed too much? Not quite. The prefix over- overdoes it in this word since whelm itself means "to cover" and that implies putting something over.

In Play: Gardeners probably do the most whelming these days, when they whelm young plants with upside-down pots to shade them while they take root. But other kinds of whelming occur all the time: "When Susan threw the frying pan at Angus, he whelmed his head with the trash can for protection." But this word still means to overwhelm in the physical sense, to rush over in huge quantities: "The patio had been whelmed by so much snow that no one could go out of the house that way."

Word History: It is difficult to trace the history of this word, for it seems to have resulted from the confusion of two words. Old English had two words meaning "to cover", whelven and helmen, a word derived from helm, the ancestor of helmet. Both these words go back to a pre-Germanic term kel- "to cover", which turned up in Sanskrit sala "cottage, house", Greek kalia "hut, cottage", and an archaic Latin word colos "covering", which went on to become color with the same meaning this word has in English today. (We are glad that John Graham is not so whelmed by life that he found the time to suggest today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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