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 Just keeping it real chill to not overwhelm everybody ... Dahlia Ghabour, The Courier-Journal, "What changes are Kentucky bars making to prepare for Monday's grand reopening?," 26 June 2020 If single, your search for a mate demands more objectivity as feelings frequently overwhelm you. BostonGlobe.com, "Horoscope," 25 June 2020 Once-unimaginable data storms can overwhelm ISP peering connections, DNS servers, and other infrastructure that everyday people and businesses rely on to shop, send email, and do other important tasks. Dan Goodin, Ars Technica, "Two record DDoSes disclosed this week underscore their growing menace," 25 June 2020 In April and May, Levine pushed state prison leaders to plan for a surge of infections at San Quentin that could overwhelm local hospitals. Jason Fagone, SFChronicle.com, "Coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, linked to transfer of inmates, grows to more than 100," 19 June 2020 Stuffed to the rafters, supermarkets overwhelm with the cacophony of choice. Bianca Bosker, The Atlantic, "The Supermarket Is One of America’s Best Ideas," 17 June 2020 The goal was to allow the greatest number of people to return to work while -- critically -- keeping the rate of new infections low enough so as not to overwhelm the health care system. Andrea Kane, CNN, "Covid-19 restrictions should be eased gradually, researchers recommend," 10 June 2020 That’s because the state’s trajectory suggests many more Oregonians will soon become infected, with the potential to once again overwhelm contact tracers needed to contain spread of the highly communicable virus. oregonlive, "‘I hope that doesn’t happen’: 1,000 daily coronavirus infections modeled by Oregon," 13 June 2020 Today, fallout from the pandemic makes the easy money of a few years ago an unbearable burden as the outbreak threatens to overwhelm hospitals already stretched thin by illnesses such as malaria and tuberculosis. Alonso Soto, Bloomberg.com, "The Ticking Debt Bomb in Africa Threatens a Global Explosion," 17 June 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.

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

3 Jul 2020

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 4 Jul. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

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.

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).


See Definitions and Examples »

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

A More Exception(al) Quiz

  • hot dog  hot dog  hot dog  hot dog cat
  • Which of the following words is not a synonym for ‘a young person’?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Bee Cubed

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

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