An overwhelming gulf

The other day I came across the word overwhelming. To tell the truth, the passage I was reading came from the last century, and the word appeared in the hyphenated spelling over-whelming. I was reminded of the way that people have recently begun using the humorous opposite, underwhelm, but then I wondered whether whelm ever appears as word in its own right. I certainly don’t ever use it (do you?) but a quick search of some dictionaries said yes, whelm by itself is a real word. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the preceding Middle English whelmen probably arose from Old English -hwelfan (as found in āhwelfan ‘to cover over’) under the influence of the unrelated helmen ‘to cover.’

Some sources believe Old English -hwelfan was related to ancient Greek kolpos, which meant ‘bosom’ and ‘gulf.’ In fact Spanish golfo and English gulf trace back to the forms colpus and colfus in which Late Latin borrowed Greek kolpos. From golfo Spanish has made the verb engolfar, whose first definition the DRAE gives as ‘to put a boat into a gulf.’ Engolfar(se) can also indicate that a ship has gone far enough out into a body of water that people on land can’t see the vessel anymore. The 1913 Webster’s defines the parallel English form engulf as ‘To absorb or swallow up as in a gulf.’ Water isn’t required, as when a building is described as being engulfed by flames. Our own era seems to favor even more metaphorical uses: the online Collins Dictionary gives the example of being engulfed by debts, and at the online Oxford Dictionaries we find that “Europe might be engulfed by war.” Spanish engolfarse also has a metaphorical sense: ‘Meterse mucho en un negocio, dejarse llevar o arrebatar de un pensamiento o afecto.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Nov 17, 2014 @ 19:24:37

    This post is amazing as it shows all the cross-referencing that makes etymology so fascinating. Interesting how “engulf” and “engolfarse” have remained similar in meaning. When I speak English I use “overwhelm” more often, however, than “engulf”.


  2. shoreacres
    Nov 22, 2014 @ 20:59:41

    I’m sure this little tale is more metaphor than etymology, but it’s still intriguing, and a great memory.

    Sailors often refer to the sea as “Mother Ocean.” In fact, Jimmy Buffett has a great song in which he refers to her that way. Years ago, I was sitting in the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke, listening to a fellow who’d been single-handing through the Caribbean tell stories. He kept talking about Mother Ocean, and finally I asked, “Why do you call her Mother Ocean.” He sighed and, as best I recall, said, “The ocean, she like every mother. Once she pull you to her bosom, she never want to let go.”

    I hadn’t thought about that in ages, until I read about “Greek kolpos, which meant ‘bosom’ and ‘gulf.’”


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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