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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Pedants Corner

An article has been brought to my attention by one David van Biema, writing in the May 27 issue of "Society' on MAKING A PRIEST PAY

He makes reference to 'Most Americans' being 'underwhelmed by the clergy's self-policing.'

The use of underwhelmed (often preceded by 'distinctly') is not a new joke. The Oxford English Dictionary records it from 1956.

Why was it ever thought to be funny? Probably because 'whelm' itself was felt to be a word that never occurred on its own, only prefixed by 'over'. Like flabber being the only thing that can be gasted.

'Whelm' is quite different, a perfectly respectable word, if obsolete. Keats uses it on its own. Whelm merely means 'to turn over' in a variety of senses, such as capsizing, overturning like a boat, closing like a dish cover, covering, drowning, burying with snow or earth. It appeared in an immaterial sense in a sermon in 1891, referring to Christ's whelming us with forgiveness.

The prefix 'over' does not here have the adverbial sense of 'too much' as in over-pay, over-use, over-done beef. It is possible to be under-paid, under-used, under-done. In overwhelm, over has a prepositional function, as in overhang. Of course, one can underhang as well as hang over; but you can't overmine as well as undermine.

Next time a fine journalist like van Biema tries to be funny using the word underwhelm, I trust the editorial department will replace it with a joke out of a cracker, or one that the children have brought home from school.

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