We've all been overwhelmed with work, or seen an underwhelming movie... but it occurred to me that I've never heard anyone use the root word, whelm.

whelm (verb)
1. to submerge; engulf.
2. to overcome utterly; overwhelm: whelmed by misfortune.

If whelm is "to overcome utterly," then why is it you never hear anyone say, "I was whelmed at work today."

And wouldn't underwhelm mean something more like expected or normal, rather than the implied less-than-expected?

  • 6
    Just one of those things, I guess. You rarely hear of anyone being gruntled either, except in a deliberately quirky utterance. Apr 4, 2011 at 18:15
  • A good article on the subject can be found here at a Word of the Day column.
    – Uticensis
    Apr 4, 2011 at 20:35
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    @Billare and @MrHen and @mgb. Please feel free to answer, I've deleted my answer. Basically "both helm and whelm are from the same root but overwhelmed actually is posterior to whelmed which means overturned (as in "capsized"). Sorry for the mess. Apr 4, 2011 at 21:01
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    Chastity: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed? Bianca: I think you can in Europe. imdb.com/title/tt0147800/quotes?qt=qt0402968
    – nohat
    Apr 6, 2011 at 15:18

4 Answers 4


Whelm is labeled as "archaic" in NOAD, as it has fallen out of use. Left in its wake are the would-be superlative overwhelm (which, rather than actually meaning "more than whelmed", has simply taken over its parent's definition) and its opposite underwhelm.

The only contact I've had with the word has been in the hymn The Solid Rock:

His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood.

  • Jack Vance in his "Alastor" series had the "Whelm", meaning the imperial navy. Apr 4, 2011 at 21:05
  • See the frequency of usage of 'whelm' on Google NGram Viewer ngrams.googlelabs.com/…
    – Liam
    Apr 5, 2011 at 9:42
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    Great reference and the only one I could think of. The versions I have say "support me," instead of "supports me." Could you verify?
    – rajah9
    Apr 5, 2011 at 17:02
  • @rajah9 Thanks. I typed it from memory without actually looking at it. How embarrassing to make such a grammatical error on the English Language & Usage site...
    – snumpy
    Apr 5, 2011 at 17:20
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    This is a good article about the history of whelm: worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-whe1.htm
    – ThomasW
    Mar 15, 2013 at 7:50

If a boat is whelmed it means that waves are coming right up to the gunwales, the tiptop of the sides of the boat, and some water is sometimes coming into the boat. This is something you can cope with but isn't pleasant. There seems to be little use for this word in a non-jargon or metaphorical sense.

When a boat is overwhelmed, water is just pouring over the sides and into the boat. This is almost certainly going to lead to sinking, capsizing and other horrible things. The word overwhelmed became hugely popular as a metaphor for anything you can't cope with that is sinking you.

Underwhelmed is a backformation and works only metaphorically. Nobody says "the weather is lovely, the sea is calm, the boat is underwhelmed." It started as a jokey comment, much like saying an actress can display the whole range of emotions from A to B, but these days is used with sincerity and no sense of wordplay by people who just see it as a synonym for "disappointed" or "not excited."

  • However, "whelm" does seem to be coming back in wordplayful circles as a middle ground between its derivatives, meaning "neither over- nor underwhelmed, just neutral". It seems that when something impresses you just the appropriate amount, you're "whelmed" in the modern sense.
    – Mark Reed
    Jun 23, 2012 at 13:41

I'm surprised no one brought it up from Moby Dick, which I'm reading for the first time.

“I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass. ”


Well, it's mostly used in a satirical sense now. Like in the cartoon Young Justice, they use it just for humor. Where Robin likes to take pre-fixes off of words that are used often in the English language like Overwhelmed. I don't see it being used in common language.

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