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 The wonder here, however, is that this insistence doesn’t overwhelm (thematically or script-wise) but informs each show in subtler shades. Jason Parham, Wired, "The Transgressive, Progressive Utopia of Summer Television," 3 Sep. 2020 There are so many voting locations on Election Day, an increase in volume wouldn’t overwhelm the system. Anthony Man, sun-sentinel.com, "If Trump supporters follow his suggestion and attempt to vote twice, polling place chaos could occur," 3 Sep. 2020 But the chemicals can also overwhelm us, inspiring the strutting, irrational invincibility of a trader during a bubble, as well as a prolonged, unreasonable fear of risk in the aftermath of a crash. John Detrixhe, Quartz, "This is your brain on Robinhood," 30 Aug. 2020 But don’t overwhelm children with these conversations. Heather Greenwood Davis, National Geographic, "Yes, you can get your kids to wear masks. Here's how.," 24 Aug. 2020 If a city or state becomes both an influenza hot spot and a COVID-19 hot spot simultaneously, that would almost certainly overwhelm hospital capacity. Andrew Natsios, The Conversation, "What happens when COVID-19 and influenza collide? Can hospitals handle the strain?," 20 Aug. 2020 Jennifer King, an associate curator at the museum, said narratives about Hurtado’s globe-trotting, bohemian life, combined with the late rediscovery of her work, can often overwhelm her artistic accomplishments. USA TODAY, "Luchita Hurtado, a celebrated bohemian painter who was 'discovered' at age 97, dies at 99," 17 Aug. 2020 Howe Gelb's production adds details — like supportive guitars, affable basses and chiming bells — that enhance but never overwhelm the singer or the songs, keeping their weary innocence intact. Pablo Gorondi, Star Tribune, "Review: Music writer Sylvie Simmons' 2nd album also a charm," 13 Aug. 2020 The falling multiple would overwhelm the gains in EPS coming mostly from buybacks, and the shares would plunge. Shawn Tully, Fortune, "Investors are treating Apple like a growth stock. But the math doesn’t add up.," 31 July 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

13 Sep 2020

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 23 Sep. 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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