What Does the Word “Overwhelmed” Mean, and How Did it Originate?

An author facing writer’s block is overwhelmed by indecision.

The word started out in the 1300s as whelm, meaning to overturn or cover.

For example, food was preserved by whelming it with another dish, or a capsized ship had been whelmed by the ocean.

In the 1600s, over was added to intensify the meaning.

Overwhelm then became figurative for being drowned by circumstances.