Too much whelm

From Alon Lischinsky, this Questionable Content cartoon:

A straightforward route to the noun whelm: from overhelm, the verb whelm by back-formation, then nouning of this verb, to give the abstract mass noun whelm.

But this analysis is a bit hazy,

The complexity is that there is an attested verb whelm (which goes back to Middle English), with its accompanying nouning whelm. Both are labeled “archaic or literary” by NOAD2, but the meaning is in the right ballpark:

verb [with obj.] engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something): a swimmer whelmed in a raging storm; [no obj.] flow or heap up abundantly: the brook whelmed up from its source.

noun: an act or instance of flowing or heaping up abundantly; a surge: the whelm of the tide

So the cartoonist could in principle be reviving the older noun, though the older noun is a count noun and the noun in the cartoon is clearly a mass noun (too much whelm). The cartoon usage sounds, in fact, like playful mass nouning (parallel to other mass nounings of verbs and adjectives, some of them playful: a bucket of fail, a bag of interesting).

Earlier Questionable Content cartoons (by Jacques Jeph): on this blog on 3/4/14; and posted by Mark Liberman on Language Log on 7/13/14.

One Response to “Too much whelm”

  1. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Whelm up was pretty common in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains of Arkansas back in the 40’s and 50’s.

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