30-Second Word Whoop: “Whelm”


The joke goes — overheard in both the newsroom and the comedy club — why are we always “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed”? What if I wanna be just plain “whelmed”?

Guffaws all around, as if the word doesn’t exist.

The joke’s on you. It does. There’s even “a picture in the dictionary,” as the popular joke set-up goes, showing a shell with water surrounding it. Yet nobody told the “spellcheck” tool; as I write, it underlines “whelm” as a red flag.

“Whelm,” which means to submerge, engulf, cover with water or bury, is also a synonym for “overwhelm.” That’s like “wet” being a synonym for “drenched.”

Why overdo it with the “over” overkill? You could say that, in usage, “whelm” has been overwhelmed by “overwhelm.” Or “overwhelmed” underwhelmed by “whelm.” Even the urban dictionary has downgraded the meaning to:

1. Verb. To Whelm. When someone or something is distinctly average and you are not moved by him/it at all.

2. To be in a state of inflicted normality. See also OVER and UNDER whelm.

Gee, if I were “whelm,” I’d first see a therapist.

About Terry Byrne

Writer-editor with deep reservations about holding her tongue. Fan of both nature and nurture. Lifelong fascination with gender studies, sexuality, music and brainpower.

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