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 In many of those places, where the health-care system is already stretched thin, even a minor surge in patients is enough to overwhelm. Author: Reis Thebault, Abigail Hauslohner, Anchorage Daily News, "A deadly ‘checkerboard’: Covid-19′s new surge across rural America," 24 May 2020 In many of those places, where the health-care system is already stretched thin, even a minor surge in patients is enough to overwhelm. Washington Post, "A deadly ‘checkerboard’: Covid-19′s new surge across rural America," 24 May 2020 But Cowan's work suggests that our luck will eventually run out, either when natural conditions and manmade climate change conspire to overwhelm the cooling influence of irrigation or when groundwater is sufficiently depleted. Jeff Berardelli, CBS News, "A devastating Dust Bowl heat wave is now more than twice as likely, study says," 21 May 2020 The tight-knit Chase family saw homes destroyed and the restaurant overwhelmed by water. Jessica B. Harris, Southern Living, "Remembering Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine," 21 May 2020 In Mexico, intensive care occupancy is below 50 percent in most cities, although deaths have begun to overwhelm funeral homes and crematoriums in the Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa. Gonzalo Solanoand Michael Weissenstein, BostonGlobe.com, "‘This is war’: Virus charges beyond Latin American hot spots," 20 May 2020 Although profiting from surprise and an overwhelming superiority of resources, they were overwhelmed by haphazardly assembled German battle groups that inflicted a gratuitous humiliation on them in the last months before the Third Reich succumbed. Max Hastings, The New York Review of Books, "Botch on the Rhine," 13 May 2020 But, because San Francisco’s hospitals have yet to be overwhelmed by an influx of cases, Rhorer said the city did not end up needing as many rooms for front-line workers as initially anticipated. Trisha Thadani, SFChronicle.com, "SF has shelled out more than $30,000 a day for empty hotel rooms. Now, officials are trying a new plan to fill them," 8 May 2020 As the signal gets stronger and threatens to overwhelm the sensor, the amplifier decreases its sensitivity. Sophie Bushwick, Scientific American, "Footstep Sensors Identify People by Gait," 30 Apr. 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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Statistics for overwhelm

Last Updated

28 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 2 Jun. 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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