Q: I’ve heard the verb “overwhelm” all my life. In recent years, I’ve been hearing “underwhelm” used in a sarcastic tone. Was “whelm” ever a verb?
A: Yes, “whelm” was—and still is—a verb. Though it’s not overwhelmingly popular today, “whelm” is a fine old word with roots that may go back to Anglo-Saxon times.
When the word “whelm” showed up sometime before 1300 (spelled quelm or welme in Middle English), it meant to overturn or capsize, but that sense is now obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s earliest citation is from the Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi: Quen þe scip suld quelm and drunken (“When the ship should overturn and sink”).
The OED notes that an older verb, “whelve,” dating from around 1200, meant to turn upside down or roll over, but it’s now obsolete except in dialectal use.
Oxford raises the possibility that the original source of “whelm” may have been the Old English word hwelman, or perhaps hwelfan, the Old English source of “whelve.”
In contemporary English, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), the word “whelm” means to submerge or overwhelm.
Oxford Dictionaries online offers this example of “whelm” used in the sense of submerge: “a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm.”
And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has this example of the word used in the sense of overwhelm: “whelmed with a rush of joy.”
As for the verb “overwhelm,” it meant “to overturn, overthrow, upset; to turn upside down” when it showed up in the 1300s, but the OED describes that sense as obsolete.
The modern sense of “to bring to sudden ruin or destruction; to engulf; to crush; to defeat utterly or conclusively” appeared in the early 1400s.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Troyyes Book, John Lydgate’s 1425 Middle English poem about the rise and fall of Troy: O ydel fame, blowe up to þe skye, Ouer-whelmyd with twyncling of an eye!
The sense of to overcome or overpower someone with emotion showed up in the early 1500s. The OED’s first citation is from the Coverdale Bible, a 1535 translation of the Bible in modern English: “An horrible drede hath ouerwhelmed me.”
The newcomer here, as you point out, is “underwhelm,” which showed up in the mid-20th century, according to citations in the dictionary.
The OED defines the verb as “to leave unimpressed, to arouse little or no interest in.” However, the dictionary says the word is chiefly seen in its adjectival forms “underwhelmed” and “underwhelming.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from Giant Corporations (1956), by T. K. Quinn. The author, commenting on a price reduction at a time of rising prices, says, “I was underwhelmed, and investigated.”
We’ll end with a dramatic example of “whelm” from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), where Abdiel warns Satan that God “with solitary hand / Reaching beyond all limit, at one blow, / Unaided, could have finished thee, and whelmed / Thy legions under darkness.”