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 But the decision to exit the country has become a pressure point as the Afghans face the increasingly likely potential that the Taliban will overwhelm the current government and retake control of the country. Maegan Vazquez, CNN, 21 July 2021 The person is so close to Peter Parker that rage will overwhelm Spider-Man. Chris Smith, BGR, 9 July 2021 Critics question whether superfluous lawsuits will overwhelm the courts, or that donors will make their gifts contingent on unreasonable restrictions, or that distant relatives will be able to rewrite donor intent. Michael Poliakoff, Forbes, 28 June 2021 The events of 1720, 1929, and, quite possibly right now, show that booms always overwhelm reason; markets are not always rational. Thomas Levenson, Time, 23 June 2021 Others worry that multifamily affordable housing developments will overwhelm town water and sewer systems — as well as disrupt the town’s quiet, secluded character. Eliza Fawcett, courant.com, 24 May 2021 Attribution science reveals how climate change is loading the dice, increasing the odds that events will overwhelm our capacity to cope and turn into severe disasters. Andrea Thompson, Scientific American, 18 May 2021 The mandate had required nearly all students under the age of 30 get a flu vaccine by the end of the year in response to concerns that dual coronavirus and flu outbreaks could overwhelm hospitals. BostonGlobe.com, 11 May 2021 Administration officials also argued that increasing refugee admissions could overwhelm the Department of Health and Human Services’s office that is also responding to thousands of young asylum seekers crossing the border. New York Times, 3 May 2021

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

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The first known use of overwhelm was in the 14th century

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Statistics for overwhelm

Last Updated

28 Jul 2021

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021.

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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.

More from Merriam-Webster on overwhelm

Nglish: Translation of overwhelm for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of overwhelm for Arabic Speakers


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