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From Middle English whelmen (to turn over, capsize; to invert, turn upside down),[1] perhaps from Old English *hwealmnian, a variant of *hwealfnian, from hwealf (arched, concave, vaulted; an arched or vaulted ceiling), from Proto-West Germanic *hwalb, from Proto-Germanic *hwalbą (arch, vault), from Proto-Indo-European *kʷelp- (to curve). The English word is cognate with German Walm (a vaulted roof), Icelandic hvolf (vaulted ceiling), Dutch welven (to arch), German wölben (to bend, curve; to arch), Icelandic hvelfa (to overturn), Old Saxon bihwelvian (to cover; to hide), Ancient Greek κόλπος (kólpos, bosom, hollow, gulf).

The noun is derived from the verb.[2]



whelm (third-person singular simple present whelms, present participle whelming, simple past and past participle whelmed)

  1. (transitive, archaic) To bury, to cover; to engulf, to submerge.
    Synonyms: overwhelm, (Britain dialectal, Scotland) whemmel
    Antonym: unwhelm
  2. (transitive, obsolete) To throw (something) over a thing so as to cover it.
    Synonym: (Britain dialectal, Scotland) whemmel
    • 1708, J[ohn] Mortimer, “Of Kites, Hawks, &c.”, in The Whole Art of Husbandry; or, The Way of Managing and Improving of Land. [], 2nd corrected edition, London: Printed by J. H. for H. Mortlock [], and J. Robinson [], →OCLC, book VII, pages 252–253:
      Gnats and Flies are very troubleſome in Houſes [...] Balls made of Horſe-dung and laid in a Room will do the ſame [attract gnats and flies] if they are new made; by which means you may whelm ſome things over them and keep them there.
  3. (transitive, obsolete) To ruin or destroy.
    • 1877, Henry M[artyn] Field, “Naples.—Pompeii and Pæstum.”, in From the Lakes of Killarney to the Golden Horn, 4th edition, New York, N.Y.: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, →OCLC, page 281:
      Here, where a Cæsar stood two thousand years ago, the traveller from another continent (though not from New Zealand) stands to-day, to muse—at Pæstum, as at Pompeii—on the fate which overtakes all human things, and at last whelms man and his works in one undistinguishable ruin.
    • 1905, Lord Dunsany [i.e., Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany], The Gods of Pegāna, London: [Charles] Elkin Mathews, [], →OCLC, page 68:
      In the twentieth night of the nine hundredth moon, as night came up the valley, I performed the mystic rites of each of the gods in the temple as is my wont, lest any of the gods should grow angry in the night and whelm us while we slept.
  4. (intransitive, archaic) To overcome with emotion; to overwhelm.
    • 1839, [John Henry Newman], [Frederick Parry Hodges, compiler], “Hymn 71”, in A Selection of Psalms and Hymns as Chaunted and Sung in the Parish Church of Lyme Regis, Dorset, Lyme [Regis], Dorset: Printed, published, and sold only by Daniel Dunster, [], →OCLC, page 175:
      Hear Thou our plaint, when light is gone / And lawlessness and strife prevail. / Hear, lest the whelming weight of crime / Wreck us with life in view; / Lest thoughts and schemes of sense and time / Earn us a sinner's due.

Usage notes[edit]

Today, the verb overwhelm is much more common than whelm.

Derived terms[edit]



whelm (plural whelms)

  1. (poetic, also figuratively) A surge of water.
    the whelm of the tide
    • 2004, Clark Coolidge, chapter XIII, in Mine: The One that Enters the Stories, Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, →ISBN, page 75:
      I wonder about things and the people between us. The currents, the feedback, and the whelms. The sharp cracks between trees, and the tolling between the knees.
    • 2006, Seamus Heaney, District and Circle, 1st American edition, New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, →ISBN, page 19:
      [...] I stood waiting, glad of a first tremor / Then caught up in the now-or-never whelm / Of one and all the full length of the train.
    • 2012, Richard Secklin, “Introduction”, in Marijuana for Parkinson’s Disease: Cannabis Research & the Miracle Plant for Parkinson’s, [United States]: Nettfit Publishing, →ISBN:
      As our country developed, the clash of new immigrating cultures were all positioning themselves throughout the United States and their political leaders were individually striving for their own egotistical whelm of power [...]
  2. A wooden drainpipe, a hollowed out tree trunk, turned with the cavity downwards to form an arched watercourse.
    • 2023, Christopher Hadley, The Road, William Collins Books, →ISBN:
      A whelm was a wooden drainpipe, a hollowed-out tree trunk, "whelmed down" or turned with the concavity downwards to form an arched watercourse.



  1. ^ whelmen, v.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007, retrieved 2 December 2018.
  2. ^ whelm, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1923; whelm, v.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1923; whelm, v. and n.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.