Tag Archives: Paradise Lost

I’m going to overwhelm you. And you’re going to like it.

map of Great Britain and Ireland, also known c...

As I was recently being underwhelmed by a recommended book, my eyes wandered up and out the window where they fell upon the rain-fueled weeds that are overwhelming my garden. Probably I should be out there pulling weeds instead of sticking with this, I thought, but my mind wandered again: hmm…you’ve got your over, and your under…is there such a thing as plain ungarnished whelmed? A little digging in the etymological shrubbery discovered there once was.

Whelm traveled solo for quite a long time, but it’s been a few hundred years since it reported for duty alone. Back around 750 AD, your Old High German self used helmian when you wanted “to cover over” something, and your later Saxon/Mercian and Old English cousins said the same thing as whelmen, hwielfan, and helman. By the 1300’s, its “covering over” had shape-shifted to “turn upside down, overthrow. Helman/whelmen seemed to like this dramatic trend because somewhere in the 1400’s it escalated to “to submerge completely”, and by around 1520 had achieved the drama of “to bring to ruin”. Just so you can see its old self in action, here’s a quote from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667): “Who…with solitary hand…at one blow Unaided could have finish’d thee, and whelm’d Thy legions under darkness”. Sometime as early as the 1400’s, folks began adding over– to whelmed. Over is a common prefix in Old English and other Germanic languages: considering how many waves of invaders trampled across the British Isles, it stands to reason they would start mashing their dialects together. Adding over– to overturned is a lot like saying “shrimp scampi” – “shrimp shrimp” as said by those innocently unaware that scampi is the Italian word for shrimp. This 2X treatment seemed to suit whelmed’s grandiose aspirations, because half a millennia later over has become whelmed’s permanent booster.

Underwhelmed is a very recent spin-off, not showing up until some time in the late 1940’s when the vogue for ironic witticisms invented this facetious version. Actually, very, very recently (early 1990’s) you began to find the occasional use of plain whelmed again, but without its garnishing prefixes it has, could we say, a kind post-ironic self-erasing meaning – failure to be whelmed, neither over nor under. A sort of flat-line. Which is what I felt about getting up and tackling the weeding. Also about continuing with the dull book. Rooting around in etymology was a lot more fun.

This etymological illumination brought to you by Jane


Filed under Etymological Illuminations

Teachers are great. But.

A very smart young man named Josh was recently in the bookstore asking all about classic literature and poetry.  We talked about Paradise Lost, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Homer, and the classic novels he admired.  He said a teacher spoiled Poe for him by making him memorize The Raven.  I laughed and told him that my granddaughter Maren complained of a teacher ruining To Kill a Mockingbird for her by “over teaching” it.  “Too much grind and not enough real insight,” was how she put it.  Josh’s face lit up. “There should be a list of books that teachers are forbidden to teach so that young people can really discover and enjoy them on their own!” he said.  I paused to ponder for a minute. Would the young then just never read these important novels? Would they never find the real enjoyment of reading them on their own?  Challenging the ideas contained within the covers?  Discussing them?

I decided that some would and others wouldn’t, but at least none would come to “hate” the book because they “had” to read it. Finally, I told Josh that I agreed with him, and asked what works he would put on the list.  He laughed and said number one would be The Raven.

I think some books are such treasures that we need to come to them when we are ready and not when they are on the agenda for certain grade levels.  As I was writing this a group of four young ladies, all in their early twenties, came into the bookstore.  I posed my question to them. “Are there any books that you feel you might have enjoyed on your own but were forced to read and be tested on until there was no enjoyment left?”  They thought a minute or two and then gave me the following titles:




For me (and I’m sure no high school student today is required to read it,) it was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, completely out of the grasp of the average 16 year old — English class systems, an emotionally restrictive protagonist in Soames Forsyte, etc. Reading it today, I would have an appreciation and sense of the importance of this novelist’s work.  But not at sixteen.

Does anyone want to have a little fun and add to this list of books teachers shouldn’t be allowed to teach?




Filed under Excuse me. I have a Question.