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. Since their appearance in the 14th century, 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.
Recent Examples on the Web The idea is that even if the defender has enough interceptor missiles to go around, missiles like Sarmat can overwhelm the defender’s ability to shoot down threatening missiles at a specific moment, allowing at least some to slip through. Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics, 29 Apr. 2022 The government’s fear is that an uncontrolled spread could overwhelm hospitals and cause a catastrophic loss of life. New York Times, 29 Mar. 2022 It was fueled by fear that coronavirus outbreaks among unsheltered populations could overwhelm care systems, endangering everyone. Los Angeles Times, 2 Feb. 2022 Lem was haunted by the idea that losses can overwhelm the human capacity to apprehend them. Caleb Crain, The New Yorker, 10 Jan. 2022 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that Omicron’s higher infectivity and ability to escape vaccines will overwhelm many hospitals over the course of January. Gleb Tsipursky, Fortune, 7 Jan. 2022 Without the necessary defenses, the country could face surging cases that, even with Omicron’s lower virulence, officials warn could overwhelm hospitals. Chris Buckley, New York Times, 1 May 2022 Be mindful though that some conditions (i.e. big hardwood leaves) may overwhelm this tiny bot! Rachel Rothman, Good Housekeeping, 29 Apr. 2022 China’s zero-tolerance approach has kept Covid infection and death rates far below those in the United States and other countries, and officials worry that an uncontrolled outbreak could overwhelm the country’s fragile health care system. NBC News, 15 Apr. 2022 See More

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

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

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Last Updated

17 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 27 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for overwhelm


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.

More from Merriam-Webster on overwhelm

Nglish: Translation of overwhelm for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of overwhelm for Arabic Speakers


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