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underwhelm

[ uhn-der-hwelm, -welm ]
/ ˌʌn dərˈʰwɛlm, -ˈwɛlm /
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See synonyms for: underwhelm / underwhelmed on Thesaurus.com

verb (used with object) Informal.
to fail to interest or astonish: After all the ballyhoo, most critics were underwhelmed by the movie.
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“Was” is used for the indicative past tense of “to be,” and “were” is only used for the subjunctive past tense.

Origin of underwhelm

First recorded in 1945–50; under- + (over)whelm
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

UNDERWHELM VS. OVERWHELM

What’s the difference between underwhelm and overwhelm?

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

Underwhelm means to fail to impress, especially when that is the expectation. 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).

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

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 underwhelm and overwhelm 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 underwhelm and overwhelm.

Quiz yourself on underwhelm vs. overwhelm!

Should underwhelm or overwhelm 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 underwhelm in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for underwhelm

underwhelm
/ (ˌʌndəˈwɛlm) /

verb
(tr) to make no positive impact or impression on; disappoint

Word Origin for underwhelm

C20: originally a humorous coinage based on overwhelm
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
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