When did overwhelm become a noun?

Mosaic Salsa by brillianthues (cropped)

As in “How to Fight Overwhelm” or “Overcoming the Overwhelm.”

This use of overwhelm as a noun is a pet peeve of mine.  Now, I don’t exactly consider myself the Grammar Police.  I can overlook the occasional your/you’re or there/their mistake.  I can appreciate the creative use of language.  (Think different.)  And I understand that language evolves.  (Because internet.)  So why does this overwhelm thing get under my skin?

Feeling overwhelmed.  Finding a task overwhelming.  These are transitive states.

But when we take overwhelm as a noun, it becomes something outside ourselves.  An entity.  A separate thing that we can’t control.  It implies that taking on more than we can handle is an unavoidable fact of modern life.  Like gridlock.  Or the Kardashians.

But is it?  We certainly have an increasingly large number of demands on our time, energy and attention.  But to overwhelm is an action.  We need to remain clearheaded about who is putting stressful demands on our resources.  Because ultimately, it is a person, and likely, it’s ourselves.

I find this much easier to deal with than some amorphous entity we’ve dubbed Overwhelm.

What do you think?


(Photo by brillianthues via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)



8 thoughts on “When did overwhelm become a noun?

  1. Aubrie De Clerck, CPC

    LOVE this.  :)Aubrie De ClerckCoaching For Claritywww.coachingforclarity.net503.810.2907 (c)aubrie@coachingforclarity.nethttp://www.linkedin.com/in/aubriedeclerck 

  2. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist

    I think you make an excellent point about language and phrasing things in a way that makes us think constructively/correctly about it.

    I’ve never heard “overwhelm” used as a noun. I have to say I’m not totally opposed to the idea of externalising it, but I think that probably works best when done consciously.

  3. SunsByThePool

    I share your feelings the use of overwhelm as a noun in your examples. However, there is a training strategy/technique/principle that we call “overwhelm” in which more tasks are assigned to trainees than they can reasonably complete in the given time to simulate the stress felt in real world conditions. Just another piece of technical jargon that slipped over the wall and escaped while no one was looking.

  4. Jack

    I actually Google searched your exact title of this post, because it matched my reaction to seeing “overwhelm” used as a noun four or five times this week in professional email correspondence. These are people who write and create for a living. For one to use “overwhelm” as a noun raised an eyebrow. For four different people I respect to all do it – in the same week – raised my ire. I don’t like it – it bothers me to the point I am sufficiently overwhelmed to spur me into action. Thankfully you beat me to the punch, as it were, and I can rest a little easier. Knowing I am not the only one raising the call to arms to end this grammatical travesty, I can persevere and push back the overwhelm that has threatened to overwhelm me this past week. See…it’s just silly. Too clever by half. Bleh.

  5. Melinda

    I know this article is old now, but when I read “Overwhelm” used as a noun for the umpteenth time I had to google “When did Overwhelm become a noun” and it came up. I would love to think that I’m flexible and accepting, but it seems the truth is using this word in this way irritates me beyond belief. I want to yell “Overwhelm is not a noun, it’s not a thing a place or a person!”. I would prefer to see “are you feeling overwhelmed?” or “I find this overwhelming”. I guess perhaps I’m a grammar-nazi at heart ;(


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