Family Moab

Family Moab
In Arches National Park

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Literary Definitions and the State of Whelm

 whelm - (archaic) v. to engulf, submerge, or bury. "a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm" n. An act or instance of flowing or heaping up abundantly; a surge. "the whelm of the tide"

"I know you can be underwhelmed and you can be overwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?" - Chastity Church (character) in Ten Things I Hate About You (movie, 1999) (Also, Google says the answer to this question is "Yes")

Book club looms on Thursday and I rushed to finish our current book, The River, by Peter Heller, in a lull between yesterday's meetings. Heller's carefully selected prose, his passionate detailed descriptions, served as delightful wakeup call to the power of words, which I've mostly been missing.  In one lovely paragraph, the use of "whelmed" made me sit up and seek clarification. As a swimmer, the example sentence of being whelmed in a raging storm appealed on a visceral level.

Whelmed provides an accurate description of my usual state. The daily roil of life's mundane challenges, four part-time jobs, house and yard issues, and my children's emotional stability often whelms. Since returning from our family trip to Indy for Olympic Trials, where I had one focus, one job, and no distractions, I've been feeling overwhelmed. The raging storm feels heightened by comparison, perhaps even to hurricane proportions.

When I brought up the topic at the dinner table last night, my twenty-one-year old waved my fascination aside. "You said that before," he mentioned, casually spooning a second helping of chicken stir fry into his bowl.

"I did? I don't remember ever having this discussion."

"Well, we did. And you use the word 'underwhelm' all the time."

This interchange baffled me. I don't recall having the conversation, or ever using the word "underwhelm" in conversation with my son. Particularly now, when all systems point toward overwhelm, it's odd that he would say such things. Then again, my brain has been whelmed for most of the past two decades, so I probably forgot.

Lastly, the term "whelm" is labeled "archaic or literary" in the definitions I've retrieved, but a 1999 movie and a 2019 book would indicate otherwise. Google informs me that "whelm" has come into contemporary use as meaning "Neither overwhelmed or underwhelmed." Delightfully incisive, Google. Would we then use "mid" as a synonym, or is that too broad? I love the resurgence of archaic terms and their juxtaposition with modern slang, and wish I could devote more time and single-minded focus to this pursuit. 

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