[ oh-ver-hwelm, -welm ]
/ ˌoʊ vərˈʰwɛlm, -ˈwɛlm /
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See synonyms for: overwhelm / overwhelmed / overwhelming / overwhelms on Thesaurus.com

verb (used with object)
to overcome completely in mind or feeling: overwhelmed by remorse.
to overpower or overcome, especially with superior forces; destroy; crush: Roman troops were overwhelmed by barbarians.
to cover or bury beneath a mass of something, as floodwaters, debris, or an avalanche; submerge: Lava from erupting Vesuvius overwhelmed the city of Pompeii.
to load, heap, treat, or address with an overpowering or excessive amount of anything: a child overwhelmed with presents; to overwhelm someone with questions.
to overthrow.
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Origin of overwhelm

A Middle English word dating back to 1300–50; see origin at over-, whelm
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What’s the difference between overwhelm and underwhelm?

The over- in overwhelm means “too much” and the under- in underwhelm essentially means “too little,” and the two words can be direct opposites, but they’re usually used in different contexts.

Overwhelm most commonly means to cause to be overcome with emotion as a result of an amount of something (work, stress, etc.) that’s just too much to handle. (It can also mean to overpower or physically cover beneath a mass of something). Underwhelm means to fail to impress, especially when that is the expectation.

Both words are often used in adjective forms: overwhelmed (overcome to the point of not being able to manage), overwhelming (describing something that leads to feeling overwhelmed), underwhelmed (unimpressed or disappointed), and underwhelming (unimpressive or disappointing).

Being overwhelmed isn’t always about stress or other negative emotions. You could be overwhelmed by a friend’s generosity or the birth of a child. Still, it’s usually about feeling a lot. In this way, underwhelm can be the opposite of overwhelm in some situations. For example, the same concert may overwhelm one person (perhaps it’s the first concert they’ve ever attended) but underwhelm someone else (maybe because it doesn’t meet their high expectations).

And, yes, whelm is a word. It can mean the same thing as overwhelm, but it’s very rarely used.

Here’s an example of overwhelm and underwhelm used correctly in the same sentence.

Example: I never want to underwhelm the fans, and sometimes that pressure can overwhelm me, but it all goes away when I walk on stage.

Want to learn more? Read the full breakdown of the difference between overwhelm and underwhelm.

Quiz yourself on overwhelm vs. underwhelm!

Should overwhelm or underwhelm be used in the following sentence?

I thought taking six classes in one semester would _____ me with work, but I’ve been able to keep up pretty easily.

How to use overwhelm in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for overwhelm

/ (ˌəʊvəˈwɛlm) /

verb (tr)
to overpower the thoughts, emotions, or senses of
to overcome with irresistible force
to overcome, as with a profusion or concentration of something
to cover over or bury completely
to weigh or rest upon overpoweringly
archaic to overturn
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012