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Overwhelm, Whelm and Underwhelm

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Someone at the pub said what does ‘whelm’ mean? You can overwhelm or underwhelm, but can you whelm? Is whelming some kind of middle way?

A bit of research reveals that originally there was just whelm, a disaster that could happen to a boat or ship, meaning it could be overcome by weight of water and sink. Overwhelm just added the sense of a mass of water descending on the vessel.

So what about underwhelm? Well it seems to be a humorous coinage, first recorded in 1956. Here’s a couple of quotations the OED gives for whelm and underwhelm.

a1513   R. Fabyan New Cronycles Eng. & Fraunce (1516) II. f. clxxxviii   By the Mysgydynge of the Sterysman he was set vpon the Pylys of the Brydge, and the Barge whelmyd.

1956    T. K. Quinn Giant Corporations viii. 61   He wrote..commending the action of one of the giant corporations for a..price reduction at a time when prices were rising. I was underwhelmed, and investigated.

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A sunk boat whelmed?