Language Corner

The overwhelming overwhelm

June 27, 2017

A style blogger posted an article and video recently on “How To Avoid Information Overload: The Best Way To Process What You Learn And Conquer Overwhelm.” Another blogger advises on how to “Turn Off the Overwhelm to “lead a deliberate life.” Keeping the theme of decluttering, another wrote: “And while conquering emotional overwhelm, brings an entirely different set of challenges than conquering physical overwhelm, the biggest challenge is surprisingly similar.”

Lest you think this “overwhelm” phenomenon is only for bloggers, a newspaper wrote recently about the “best way to avoid paper overwhelm.” At another publication, a writer talked of how “stress and overwhelm” interfered with business decisions. And a syndicated column that ran in many publications on “ways to recharge when you’re feeling overwhelmed” ended this way: “Overwhelm is normal, but these few simple coping strategies can help minimize its impact.”

Don’t know about you, but I think we’re having an “overwhelm” of “overwhelm” used as a noun.

“Overwhelm” is overwhelmingly used as a verb, to mean “to pour down upon and cover over or bury beneath”; “to dominate, subdue, obliterate, etc. as because of superior or excessive strength”; and “to overcome emotionally,” in the definitions of Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

But increasingly, it’s also been used as a noun to mean “overload.” While it’s most often used in emotional context, it’s also used in business, where “nounification” is an industry unto itself. Maeve Maddox at the Daily Writing Tips blog found more examples of “overwhelm” as a noun than she expected.

One could argue that there is no need for the noun form of “overwhelm” when the perfectly good noun “overload” already exists, but there’s no stopping people who want to improve (or improvise) existing words.

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A writer on the PsychCentral blog who discusses his ADHD defends the noun “overwhelm,” saying:

I have to say that on the rare occasions that I’ve seen “overwhelm” being used as a noun I was uncomfortable with it, but it does make sense. To feel overwhelm in one’s life is exactly the sensation that many of us experience just before we shut down, break down, blow up or blow off our responsibilities. (Emphasis added)

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that “overwhelm” has been a noun since at least 1596, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The definition given, “[t]he action of overwhelming; the fact or state of being overwhelmed; an instance of this,” is the way it is still being used today. Even so, no other major dictionary includes the noun.

The verb form is nearly 200 years older, the OED says, though it originally meant “to overturn, overthrow, upset; to turn upside down,” now listed as obscure.

And “overwhelmed” as a verb is itself an unnecessary variation, since its root, “whelm,” means the same thing. “Over the last 600 years, however, ‘overwhelm’ has won over English speakers who have come to largely prefer it to ‘whelm,’ despite the latter’s brevity,” says Merriam-Webster’s usage note. “Perhaps the emphatic redundancy of ‘overwhelm’ makes it seem like the more fitting word for describing the experience of being overcome by powerful forces or feelings.”

The same could be said of the noun form, which gives a stronger image of someone foundering on the rocks than “overload” does.

Still, as Maddox says, “Careful speakers and writers may want to give it a miss in non-playful contexts.” To do otherwise would be to subject readers to too much “overwhelm.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.