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Monday, December 06, 2004

Underwhelmed

Dept of Pedantry: it always irritates me to read these jokers who think they're so witty to reverse *over*whelm.

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, which was the only thing that could 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.

Each time a journo tries to be funny using the word underwhelm, I yearn to ask the editorial department to replace it with a joke out of a cracker, or one that the children have brought home from school.


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