over·​whelm | \ ˌō-vər-ˈhwelm How to pronounce overwhelm (audio) , -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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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 In December and January, you may be distracted from more important issues by community events or overwhelmed by social activities. Tribune Content Agency, oregonlive, "Horoscope for Nov. 5, 2019: Happy birthday Tatum O’Neal; Sagittarius, awkward moments abound today," 5 Nov. 2019 And now, at last, as if by the rush of an ocean, my shuddering spirit is overwhelmed by the one grim Danger — by the one spectral and ever-prevalent idea. John Hirschauer, National Review, "Kanye West’s Reactionary Turn Isn’t Just an Act," 4 Nov. 2019 Store assistants will likely suggest beginning with three, to avoid being overwhelmed by the intoxicatingly chic experience. Vogue, "A First Look Inside Celine’s New Haute Parfumerie in Paris," 2 Nov. 2019 Like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, sons of NBA players, and like Barry Bonds, son of a baseball player, he’s not overwhelmed by the environment. Ann Killion, SFChronicle.com, "49ers: First-rounder Nick Bosa goes where no Niner has gone before," 27 Oct. 2019 Yet Laos is among the eight nations most vulnerable to being overwhelmed by debt to China, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. New York Times, "‘Our River Was Like a God’: How Dams and China’s Might Imperil the Mekong," 12 Oct. 2019 Long regarded as a forum for elite and intellectual debate, the Academy was quickly overwhelmed by the scandal. Suyin Haynes, Time, "Last Year's Nobel Prize in Literature Was Canceled Over Scandal and Conflict. Can 2019's Award Mark a Comeback?," 9 Oct. 2019 Morgan nevertheless stressed that for most of the past 12 months, his officers were overwhelmed by the months-long surge of Central American families and unaccompanied children heading north that peaked in the spring. Camilo Montoya-galvez, CBS News, "U.S. apprehended nearly 1 million migrants along U.S.-Mexico border in past 12 months," 8 Oct. 2019 The Huskies have two conference losses just three games into the conference slate after being overwhelmed in a 23-13 loss to Stanford on Saturday. San Diego Union-Tribune, "Latest loss has Washington searching for offensive answers," 7 Oct. 2019

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 Nov 2019

Cite this Entry

“Overwhelm.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overwhelms. Accessed 21 November 2019.

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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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