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TWTS: Feeling overwhelmed? "Whelmed" can totally relate

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"I know you can be underwhelmed and you can be overwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?"

This question has been plaguing fans of the 90s teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You for more than 20 years now. The character Chastity posed it to her best friend Bianca, who offered this casual reply:

“I think you can in Europe.”

While it’s true you can be whelmed in Europe, you can also be whelmed in North America. Or Australia. Or Candy Land, for that matter. The only problem with “whelm” is that it’s just not as popular as its counterparts “overwhelm” and “underwhelm.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “whelmed” first came into the English language as a verb in the 1300s. It meant “to capsize,” as in, “High winds caused the ship to whelm.”

Later on, “whelm” began taking objects. For example, you could whelm something by turning it over. A quote from 1530 instructs readers to “whelm a platter upon it to save it from flies.” In other words, turn an empty plate upside down and use it to cover a plate of food.

From there, “whelm” takes on meanings like “to throw something over something else in order to crush it,” and “to submerge in water” or “to bury under a load of earth.”

“Whelm” later comes to refer to something that bears down on something else, such as a flood that whelms a town. It also takes on a more figurative meaning, as in this example from 1791: “Sorrow whelmed his soul.”

Notice how “overwhelmed” could very easily take the place of “whelmed” in that last example? These two terms eventually became synonymous after “overwhelm” showed up in the 1400s with the meaning “to overturn” or “to turn upside down." Like “whelm,” “overwhelm” went to pick up heavier meanings such as “to crush” or “to bury under earth.”

Following that pattern, it’s not terribly surprising that “overwhelm” also took on figurative meanings. One could be overwhelmed with work or overwhelmed with emotion.

Of course, “whelm” was eventually overwhelmed by “overwhelm,” thus inciting characters in teen rom-coms to question its existence.

“Whelm” and “overwhelm” got us thinking about “over impress” and “under impress.” To hear that conversation, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.