over·whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈhwelm , -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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Synonyms & Antonyms for overwhelm


deluge, drown, engulf, flood, gulf, inundate, overflow, submerge, submerse, swamp



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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

These deep emotions can often come on like a penumbral shadow and overwhelm him. Danielle Jackson, Longreads, "‘Wild With Love’: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on the Portraits of Henry Taylor," 12 July 2018 First responders reached the man before the fast-moving river overwhelmed him. Grant Suneson And John Harrington, USA TODAY, "The 25 most heroic dogs in America," 5 July 2018 These pastel hues are at home with drought-resistant perennials without overwhelming them both literally and visually. Maureen Gilmer, sacbee, "For gorgeous blooms in the summer heat, you can’t beat lantanas," 22 June 2018 Their brain processes differently and too many details will overwhelm them. Kristen Cusato, sandiegouniontribune.com, "ABC’s of Alzheimer’s and dementia for caregivers," 4 June 2018 Firing off the fast emails frees me up to respond to necessary things more thoughtfully later on, and also ensures my inbox doesn’t overwhelm me. Nina Bahadur, SELF, "How Embracing the 1-Minute Rule Made My Life a Million Times Easier," 30 May 2018 More than 50 militants overwhelmed them with firepower. NBC News, "Leaders of U.S. soldiers killed in Niger filed misleading mission plan, say officials," 8 May 2018 Allowing rainwater to enter the sewage treatment system overwhelms it and causes major problems, officials have said. Robert Rhoden, NOLA.com, "Tammany Utilities accused of falsifying reports, bullying citizens," 7 May 2018 Though Ronny has lost feeling below his waist, pain still overwhelms him. Claire Mcneill, miamiherald, "This student became a paraplegic in FSU shooting. He fights to exist, to graduate. | Miami Herald," 4 May 2018

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

18 Sep 2018

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 , -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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