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

Keep scrolling for more

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.
See More
Recent Examples on the Web In other news across the globe, India continues to battle a crippling surge of coronavirus infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals in some cities. Melody Petersen Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times, "Coronavirus Today: Rare clots pause Johnson & Johnson shots," 13 Apr. 2021 The province of Ontario, including Canada's most populous city, Toronto, imposed a provincewide stay-at-home order for at least four weeks beginning Thursday as the third wave threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Paula Newton, CNN, "Canada's third wave on track to become its worst yet as hospitalizations spike," 9 Apr. 2021 But at the same time, there has been a surge in infections that threatens to overwhelm the health-care system, with a record 7,626 new coronavirus cases in a single day last week. Washington Post, "Vaccination rates are rising, but so are covid cases," 1 Apr. 2021 But the flow of asylum-seekers threatens to overwhelm the country's immigration system after it was overhauled by former President Donald Trump in ways that irritated Democrats. Naomi Lim, Washington Examiner, "White House scrambles on immigration, blames Trump, and calls in first lady," 6 Mar. 2021 But the events never overwhelm the narrative, a frequent pitfall for some graphic novels. David James, Anchorage Daily News, "New graphic novel ‘Kodi’ is great for young readers, but also a sweet tale for adults," 18 Apr. 2021 An abundance of complex medical testimony could also overwhelm jurors. oregonlive, "George Floyd’s cause of death at issue in Derek Chauvin trial as prosecution questions autopsy findings," 4 Apr. 2021 Trauma therapists assert that abuse experienced early in life can overwhelm the central nervous system, causing children to split off a painful memory from conscious awareness. Joshua Kendall, Scientific American, "Forgotten Memories of Traumatic Events Get Some Backing from Brain-Imaging Studies," 6 Apr. 2021 An abundance of complex medical testimony could also overwhelm jurors. oregonlive, "George Floyd’s cause of death at issue in Derek Chauvin trial as prosecution questions autopsy findings," 4 Apr. 2021

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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about overwhelm

Time Traveler for overwhelm

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Listen to Our Podcast about overwhelm

Statistics for overwhelm

Last Updated

5 May 2021

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 10 May. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for overwhelm



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.

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on overwhelm

What made you want to look up overwhelm? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


Test Your Vocabulary

Star Wars Words Quiz

  • cu jedi training
  • The bounty portion of bounty hunters (such as Boba Fett) comes from a Latin word meaning
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!