We know we can be overwhelmed. Why aren't we ever just whelmed?
Last week, I got this question from Jessica in East Harlem:
"My mother texted me asking if I was overwhelmed and pondered in the same text ‘why can you be overwhelmed, but not whelmed?’ So I looked it up and found that ‘whelmed’ actually is a word. I had no idea, and I’ve never heard it used. Any idea why people use 'over' and 'under,' but not just 'whelmed'?"
I was surprised to find that “whelmed” is a word too!
Originally, 'whelm' was a verb that meant 'to capsize,' as in 'the barge whelmed.'
"Whelmed" was originally a nautical term. Back in the 1300s, it meant to capsize or to turn any kind of hollow vessel upside down, and it was sometimes used with the word “over.” For example, one sentence in the Oxford English Dictionary reads, “Their ovens are large iron pots which they whelm over things to be baked, upon heated iron plates.”
Later, it described other kinds of turning over, like turning over dirt to expose the part below, burying something under dirt or snow, or describing something that had been ruined by being flooded over with water.
Obviously, “whelmed” isn’t used much anymore. The word we know is “overwhelmed,” which is nearly as old, and had a slightly more limited meaning, but still related to things being overturned, upside down, rotated, and so on— generally something that is just kind of topsy-turvy.
I can’t tell you why “overwhelmed” beat “whelmed” in the word popularity contest, but it does give it more meaning for me to know that being overwhelmed is related to all those ideas of being buried, flooded, or out of place in the world.
Surprisingly, "underwhelmed" is a much newer word. Merriam-Webster says the word first appeared in print in 1949 and was probably coined as a joke based on twisting the meaning of "overwhelmed."
Finally, your question reminded me of an episode we did a few years ago about similar words, such as “disheveled” and “disgruntled.” You can’t be sheveled, but it turned out that “gruntled” actually is a word, and we just don’t use it anymore, much like “whelmed.” If you’re interested in that, it was podcast episode #370.
Thanks for the question, Jessica!
[And thanks to a listener named Adam for pointing me to this New Yorker piece that uses words stripped of their negativity to humorous effect.]
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.