Friday, 1 February 2013

just whelmed

To feel overwhelmed is usually uncomfortable.  To feel underwhelmed is usually uncomfortable.  But what about the space in between?  I enjoy exploring the space in between, and sometime this week it occurred to me that I have rarely encountered the alternative to either overwhelmed or underwhelmed.  

Might we start to describe ourselves as 'whelmed' to indicate neutrality?  

In fact, 'underwhelmed' started life as a joke based on overwhelmed, and in language terms is relatively recent — it was first recorded in 1956, but became popular only a decade or so later. It seems to have become well established having entered common parlance, and filling a need for a single word to communicate the concept of failing to impress.

The verb whelm does exist, though there are very few examples to be found in modern prose.  But it was, at one time, common.  It started as a medieval English sea term meaning to capsize — it’s related to the even older whelve, meaning to overturn.  It could also mean to turn a hollow vessel upside down to cover something.  It also came to mean, as an extension of the capsizing sense, being covered by water or drowning.  One might once have talked about the whelm of the tide, which covers the shore as it rises.  

Beautifully archaic having fallen out of use, perhaps whelm will require something of a renaissance.  It may not be plain sailing. 

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