I accept that one of the features that make English the wonderfully rich language that it is is its ability to change, absorb and adapt. Regrettably, this means that some words fall into ill-deserved obscurity. One such is the verb whelm which has these days has pretty much been overwhelmed by overwhelm, meaning to bury or drown or to have a strong effect on, a state of affairs which has left me rather underwhelmed, meaning disappointed.
Whelm has a fine pedigree, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. In Middle English it meant to overturn or capsize and was to be found in a couple of formats, quelm or welme. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is in the historical and religious poem that ran to some 30,000 lines called Cursor Mundi, written around the start of the 14th century. There we find, “Quen be scip suld quelm and drunken” which loosely translates as “when the ship should overturn and sink.” Whelm’s nautical usage appeared in Robert Fabyan’s The Newe Cronycles of Englande and of Fraunce from 1513. He wrote, “By the mysgydynge of the sterysman, he was set vpon the pylys of the brydge, and the barge whelmyd” which in modern parlance means “by the misguidance of the steersman, he was set upon the piles of the bridge, and the barge whelmed”.
Perhaps the most famous usage of whelm is to be found in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in 1667. Abadiel 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.” The sense is the same, albeit figurative – just as a violent sea overpowers a ship and sends it to its doom, so God’s power will destroy his enemies. This sense is extended in Sir Charles Lyall’s usage in Principles of Geology, published in 1830; “Marsh land … has at last been overflowed, and thousands of the inhabitants whelmed in the waves.” A less destructive use of the verb whelm appeared in the Florist’s Journal of 1842. In a piece giving tips on planting pansies; “Pansies that were planted out in the autumn, should be protected by whelming a small pot over each plant.” The pot is overturned, as a ship is when it capsizes, but this seems a much more figurative use of the verb.
The more familiar overwhelm also has a lengthy heritage, appearing for certain in the 14th century, originally meaning to overturn, overthrow or upset. A century later, though, there had been a shift in meaning, the verb being used to indicate sudden and violent destruction. John Lydgate used it thus in his Troyyes Book from 1425 in which he wrote about the rise and fall of the city of Troy; “O ydel fame, blowe up to þe skye, Ouer-whelmyd with twyncling of an eye! “ The emotional aspect to overwhelm seems to have developed in the 16th century. The Coverdale Bible, a translation of the Bible into modern English dating to around 1535, contains the phrase, “An horrible drede hath ouerwhelmed me.”
Underwhelm is a different kettle of fish, not appearing until the middle of the 20th century. We use it mainly in an adjectival form in conjunction with the verb to be, as in I am underwhelmed, and it conveys a sense that you are unimpressed or that something has had little effect on you. The OED’s first citation is from T K Quinn’s Giant Corporations of 1956 where, when commenting on the practice of reducing prices in an environment when prices are normally rising, “I was underwhelmed, and investigated.”