Word of the Month: Whelm

David Zapatka

While at a conference in Houston, Texas, last month, I heard keynote speaker Frank Abagnale, the author of the book Catch Me If You Can and main character of the movie by the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The book and movie depict Mr. Abagnale’s life as a check forger and scam artist. He is obviously one smart man. The things he got away with and his imagination in creating these schemes at such a young age were stunning. He is also quite the wordsmith, as I discovered in his book.

On page 27, Mr. Abagnale writes, “I walked on, still enmeshed in the net of their glamour, and suddenly I was seized with an idea so daring in scope, so dazzling in design, that I whelmed myself.” Notice he used the word “whelmed” not “overwhelmed.” When was the last time you heard someone use the word “whelmed,” not “overwhelmed?” I found this interesting, so I did some research.

Whelm verb ˈ(h)welm 1. to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something: cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect. 2. to overcome in thought or feeling. overwhelm. // whelmed with a rush of joy — G. A. Wagner. Intransitive verb – to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it.

Does it seem like “whelm” and “overwhelm” are synonyms? How about “underwhelm?” “Overwhelm” is to engulf, surge-over and submerge while “whelm” is to cover; to submerge; to engulf; to bury. The definitions vary slightly but look very similar to me. Yes, they’re synonyms. However, “underwhelm” is something entirely different. Its definition is a verb. It means humorous, fail to impress or make a positive impact on someone; disappoint. English is such a funny and interesting language. How do we sort this out?

Michael Phillips writing for the Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2001, wrote, “It is not overwhelming and it is not underwhelming. You leave the production feeling merely whelmed.” Contemporary writers like Phillips sometimes use “whelm” to denote a middle stage between “underwhelm” and “overwhelm.” However, that’s not how “whelm” has traditionally been used. “Whelm” and “overwhelm” have been with us for many centuries and have largely been viewed as synonyms. Both words meant “to overturn” and both have come to mean “to overpower in thought or feeling.” Beginning about 1950, a third word, “underwhelmed,” meaning “unimpressed,” has found favor.

Origin and Etymology – Middle English

First Used – 14th century

Whelm used in a sentence.

The news so whelmed them that they were stunned into silence.

Whelm used in the news and literature.

Its reputation is built on the backs of 3-series gone by, as this is the first ever 3 to merely whelm us. — Alexander Stoklosa, Car and Driver, 26 July 2017

Are you overwhelmed, underwhelmed or merely whelmed by this article? Please submit any (over/under)whelming experiences or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to [email protected].