Comms etymology: Can you just be ‘whelmed’ at work?

We often say we are “overwhelmed” or “underwhelmed,” but did you know that you can, in fact, just be “whelmed”? Explore the etymology of these words in order to understand how.

An image of a wave that accompanies a story about the etymolgy of the word "whelmed." Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash.

Everyone who’s held a job has experienced a day, week or month when the inbox is brimming, the DMs are dinging and the to-do list only gets longer by the hour. The feeling that grips you in those moments is epitomized by a familiar word: Overwhelmed.  

And then there are those moments when the boss announces a new team-building, culture-crafting initiative to engage teams and cultivate community. But wait it’s pizza. Again. Underwhelming, right?  

And what does it mean to be “whelmed”? 

“Whelmed” has been the subject of classic comedy lines, including George Carlin’s commentary on the English language, as well as film and TV dialogue, seen in “Teen Titans and Clueless as characters posit that one could be neither underwhelmed nor overwhelmed, but simply whelmed. (E.g. “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”) 

Because the base word is uncommonly used without its prefixes — aside from in these gags and other hypothetical musings — it is an example of an unpaired word, or a word that looks like it should exist without a prefix or suffix., A word that should have a natural opposite, but doesn’t. Or if it does have one, it is only rarely used. 

The characters who reference the term give “whelm” a sense of stasis, vague satisfaction or apathy. But that’s not quite accurate, as you’ll learn if you take a look at the etymology of this word. 

“Whelm” is derived from the Old English hwielfan, originally meaning to “cover over,” “overthrow,” or “submerge completely,” as would happen to a ship in rough water.  

This means that “whelm” once meant the same thing as “overwhelm” does now, and “over” was simply a repetitive intensifier.  

So if you are whelmed, you might feel like you are being battered like a ship on a stormy sea, but if you are overwhelmed, you might feel like the waves are even more intense and threatening to swallow you up.  

By the same token, if you’re underwhelmed, you might seek a new professional adventure because your metaphorical seas just aren’t exciting enough. 

Other unpaired words regularly crop up in English. Here are a few more to tickle your fancy: 


The base word of “disgust” is gust, which originally comes from the Latin gustare, “to taste.” So “disgust” is a reaction to something with an unpleasant taste. 


The base word of “innocent” is nocent, which comes from the Latin nocentem, meaning “harming.” So innocent literally means “not-harming,” or “harmless.” 


The base word of reckless is “reck,” a now-rare English word. To have “reck” or, in today’s form, to “reckon” is to care about something or consider it. Both words emerged from the Old English reccan, meaning “to take care of” or “to be interested in.” So to be reckless is to behave without considering or caring about the consequences. 

 Jess Zafarris is a content director, editor, journalist, speaker, social media engagement strategist and creator. Her 13 years of experience in media have included such roles as the Director of Content at Ragan Communications, Audience Engagement Director at Adweek, and Content Strategy Director and Digital Content Director for Writer’s Digest and Script Mag. Follow her on Twitter, Threads, Instagram and Tiktok @jesszafarris  and connect with her on LinkedIn.


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