overwhelm

verb
over·​whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈhwelm, -ˈwelm\
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

Eventually, the Labor Department shut it down with a note apologizing for the system outage caused by overwhelming filing demand. Ruth Simon, WSJ, "Heavy Demand Crashes Government Visa Site, Leaving Seasonal Business in Limbo," 1 Jan. 2019 That was proof of the style not overwhelming the content. Devon Maloney, The Verge, "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse directors on the film’s gorgeous style," 17 Dec. 2018 Malin's secret to a festive space that's not overwhelming is keeping an open mind, and not boxing himself in by thinking traditional items are the only way. Danielle Tullo, House Beautiful, "Gray Malin's Holiday Decor Proves That Coral Is The Best Christmas Color," 12 Dec. 2018 No worries—the Joshua Tree Candle available at Of a Kind is fall-ish and reminiscent of the crispness of nature without being too spot on or overwhelming. Erin Nicole Celletti, Teen Vogue, "7 Fall Candles Under $60," 16 Nov. 2018 The game cleverly takes advantage of your rapt Tetris attention to introduce subtle and not-so-subtle level transformations, and these feel all the more sense-overwhelming within the comfortable confines of a PlayStation VR headset. Sam Machkovech, Ars Technica, "Tetris Effect review: The puzzle game of my dreams—literally," 9 Nov. 2018 And outside of her house, even more wreckage floods the street, and overwhelms the neighborhood still. Jessica Leigh Mattern, Country Living, "Devastating Photos Show Luke Bryan's Mother's Home Destroyed By Hurricane Michael," 23 Oct. 2018 The sheer abundance of fatty acids overwhelms the fat cells, causing them to malfunction and die, after which, they're metabolized by the body and excreted as waste. Jolene Edgar, Allure, "What Is EMSulpt? Here's Everything You Need to Know About the Body-Contouring Treatment," 17 Sep. 2018 While meeting a group of well-wishers at the site, one little boy appeared to get overwhelmed by the encounter and simply crawled away from the sovereign. Erica Gonzales, Harper's BAZAAR, "This Boy Crawling Away from the Queen Is Me in All Social Situations," 6 Dec. 2018

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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Statistics for overwhelm

Last Updated

9 Jan 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for overwhelm

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

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More Definitions for overwhelm

overwhelm

verb

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

overwhelm

verb
over·​whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈhwelm, -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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Comments on overwhelm

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