over·​whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈ(h)welm How to pronounce overwhelm (audio) \
overwhelmed; overwhelming; overwhelms

Definition of overwhelm

transitive verb

1 : upset, overthrow The tornado overwhelmed many mobile homes.
2a : to cover over completely : submerge The city was overwhelmed by the flooding caused by the hurricane.
b : to overcome by superior force or numbers The city was overwhelmed by the invading army.
c : to overpower in thought or feeling overwhelmed with grief overwhelmed by terror A sense of inadequacy overwhelmed me. overwhelmed with guilt

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Did You Know?

You could say that the introduction of "overwhelm" to the English language was a bit redundant. The word, which originally meant "to overturn or upset," was formed in Middle English by combining the prefix over- with the verb "whelmen," which also meant "to overturn." "Whelmen" has survived in English as "whelm," a verb which is largely synonymous with "overwhelm." Over the last 600 years, however, "overwhelm" has won over English speakers who have come to largely prefer it to "whelm," despite the latter's brevity. Perhaps the emphatic redundancy of "overwhelm" makes it seem like the more fitting word for describing the experience of being overcome by powerful forces or feelings.

Examples of overwhelm in a Sentence

Don't overwhelm him with facts. They were overwhelmed with work. The city was overwhelmed by the invading army.
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Recent Examples on the Web The chipotle is well represented also, producing a balanced heat that doesn’t overwhelm. Chuck Blount, ExpressNews.com, "Chuck’s Food Shack: Go beyond Buffalo wings with an assortment of creative chicken wing sauces," 3 Aug. 2020 They're meant to use blistering speed to overwhelm enemy air defenses. Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics, "Trump’s 'Super Duper Missile' Is Actually Super Duper Real," 20 July 2020 Pretty soon, the recruiting process began to overwhelm Worthy, who had coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban on speed dial, Biggs said. Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press, "Michigan football's former QB Denard Robinson was fast. The latest WR commit might be faster," 11 July 2020 In Georgia, one of the states where cases are surging, officials are rushing to expand testing capacity as demand threatens to overwhelm six major sites around Atlanta, said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. CBS News, "Americans face COVID-19 test delays as virus surges: "A hot mess"," 9 July 2020 In Georgia, one of the states where cases are surging, officials are rushing to expand testing capacity as demand threatens to overwhelm six major sites around Atlanta, said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. Author: Christopher Weber, Sophia Tulp, Anchorage Daily News, "Americans face testing delays as virus surges," 8 July 2020 As the crisis deepens and threatens to overwhelm health care workers, more restrictions on the economy may be necessary, especially with public schools scheduled to start next month. Dallas News, "D-FW’s job losses are huge, but they’re only half as bad as the rest of the country," 7 July 2020 Huge leaps in case numbers have started to overwhelm some U.S. hospitals and testing centers. Washington Post, "To keep coronavirus out, Canada’s smallest province kept the rest of the country away. Now outsiders are returning.," 6 July 2020 And the hospitalization numbers provide little comfort, either, and continue to overwhelm local medical capacity. Sy Mukherjee, Fortune, "More than 130,000 Americans have died of COVID and hospitalizations are mounting," 6 July 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'overwhelm.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of overwhelm

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for overwhelm

Middle English, from over entry 1 + whelmen to turn over, cover up

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Time Traveler for overwhelm

Time Traveler

The first known use of overwhelm was in the 14th century

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Last Updated

8 Aug 2020

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.

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More Definitions for overwhelm


How to pronounce overwhelm (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of overwhelm

: to affect (someone) very strongly
: to cause (someone) to have too many things to deal with
: to defeat (someone or something) completely


over·​whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈhwelm How to pronounce overwhelm (audio) , -ˈwelm \
overwhelmed; overwhelming

Kids Definition of overwhelm

1 : to overcome completely (as with great force or emotion) The larger army overwhelmed the troops. She was overwhelmed with grief.
2 : to cover over completely : submerge Waves overwhelmed the small boat.

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