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

Rarely does anyone want to live that way; they are overwhelmed with the process of how to dig themselves out. Amy Dickinson, Detroit Free Press, "Hubby undermines plans, wife goes ALL CAPS," 7 July 2019 Rarely does anyone want to live that way; they are overwhelmed with the process of how to dig themselves out. Ask Amy, oregonlive.com, "Ask Amy: Dad’s demands on Father’s Day are the last straw," 7 July 2019 Prang said that even though Los Angeles County’s assessor’s department is four times as big as the state’s next largest, with 1,400 employees, it would be overwhelmed for years. Joe Garofoli, SFChronicle.com, "Prop. 13 reform headed to California ballot could swamp counties," 6 July 2019 Horton’s report further conveys the weaponization of the immigration system in perpetuating false stereotypes that have overwhelmed the demand for an ethical and consistent system. Letters To The Editor, The Mercury News, "Letter: Alarming findings about ICE demonstrate need for reform," 5 July 2019 Make no mistake, though: Philadelphia will be looking to win with defense by owning the interior, controlling the glass and physically overwhelming the opposition. Ben Golliver, The Denver Post, "76ers emerge from inventive free agency as true contenders," 3 July 2019 This is Highly Recommend, a column dedicated to our very opinionated editors’ favorite things to eat, drink, and buy. I’m not typically overwhelmed by beverage options when dining out. Matt Duckor, Bon Appétit, "Why Order One Drink When You Can Get a Bucket of Them at Kāwi?," 2 July 2019 The lore of nature elevates the story but does not overwhelm the plot. Oline H. Cogdill, sun-sentinel.com, "Book review: Maine game warden on the hunt in ‘Almost Midnight’," 1 July 2019 Other agencies are also overburdened and short of funds, as huge numbers of Central Americans trying to reach U.S. soil have overwhelmed the system. The Washington Post, Twin Cities, "House passes Senate border bill as leaders cave to moderate Democrats and GOP," 27 June 2019

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

10 Jul 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



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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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).


appealing forcibly to the mind or reason

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