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 Trauma therapists assert that abuse experienced early in life can overwhelm the central nervous system, causing children to split off a painful memory from conscious awareness. Joshua Kendall, Scientific American, "Forgotten Memories of Traumatic Events Get Some Backing from Brain-Imaging Studies," 6 Apr. 2021 An abundance of complex medical testimony could also overwhelm jurors. oregonlive, "George Floyd’s cause of death at issue in Derek Chauvin trial as prosecution questions autopsy findings," 4 Apr. 2021 An abundance of complex medical testimony could also overwhelm jurors. Chao Xiong, Star Tribune, "Cause of death at issue in Chauvin trial as prosecution questions medical examiner's findings," 3 Apr. 2021 And the ease with which a ghost kitchen can flood the market with numerous virtual offerings in a category could overwhelm all the physical restaurants in the same category and put them out of business. Aaron Pressman, Fortune, "Travis Kalanick is back at the center of controversy," 2 Apr. 2021 Today's weed boasts levels of psychoactive THC far greater than decades ago and can overwhelm your pet, whether the source is smoke, magic brownies, or buds. Steve Bender, Southern Living, "Six Deadly Plants for Dogs and Cats," 22 Mar. 2021 Covid patients no longer overwhelm the hospital, and in his unit, people are recovering from standard procedures like heart surgery. New York Times, "How Essential Workers Who Shared Their Sundays With Us Are Doing, One Year In," 19 Mar. 2021 Large doses of the virus can overwhelm the sturdiest of immune defenses, if given the chance. Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, "Some Vaccinated People Are Going to Get Infected," 19 Mar. 2021 The very industry driving the small Caribbean island's economy also threatened to strain its social fabric by inflating real-estate prices and to overwhelm its environment, increasing pollution and straining natural resources. Jeff Chu, Travel + Leisure, "3 Destinations Leading the Charge for Sustainable Tourism," 18 Mar. 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

Time Traveler

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

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Statistics for overwhelm

Last Updated

11 Apr 2021

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelm. Accessed 16 Apr. 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.

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