Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about both 'whelm' and 'overwhelm.'
Whelm (v.) c.1300, probably from a parallel form of Old English -hwielfan (West Saxon), -hwelfan (Mercian), in ahwelfan "cover over;" probably altered by association with Old English helmian "to cover" (see helmet). http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=whelm&allowed_in_frame=0.
Overwhelm (v.) early 14 c., “to turn upside down, to overthrow,” from over- + Middle English whelmen “to turn upside down” (see whelm). Meaning “to submerge completely” is mid-15c. Perhaps the connecting notion is a boat, etc., washed over, and overset, by a big wave. Figurative sense of “to bring to ruin” is attested from 1520s.
Can you blame me for being confused? What exactly is the difference? The quotes above suggest that the addition of ‘over’ to ‘whelm’ was intended as an intensifier. In other words as a way to say ‘more’ whelmed than usual—although how something or someone can be more upside down or submerged is still a bit of a puzzle to me. Also worth noting is that the simpler ‘whelm’ seems to have dropped out of use and is regarded as old-fashioned or antiquated. [I wonder what that says about me, since I’m pretty familiar with the use of ‘whelm.’]
I’ll leave decisions about ‘whelm’ and ‘overwhelm’ to you, so please leave a comment. To help you I’ll give a short excerpt from each book describing the heroine. In each case, the lady is visibly in trouble.
One Day’s Loving ~ Persephone Mae Alden as first seen by attorney James W. Collins V and his law clerk, Harry. (Order One Day's Loving here.)
Harry made for the door, but it opened before he could touch the knob.
Huffing as if she’d run a great distance, a woman stood framed in the doorway. Her rain-sodden hair dragged down her face and across her shoulders. Her dress was muddy, crumpled, and her neckline askew. She smelled like a violet-strewn whiskey factory.
“This is no place for the likes of you. Get on your way,” ordered Harry. He shifted to block her path into the office. “I’m going for the police.”
“No, please. You don’t understand.” She stopped for breath. “I’m Persephone Mae Alden.”
Her elocution was at odds with her odor and appearance. Tremors shook the timid voice, and James noticed the shivers racking the woman’s small frame.
Harry snorted. “I doubt that. Miss Alden is a well-bred miss and would never. . .”
James finally recognized the delicate bone structure obscured by the mass of wet hair and moved Harry aside. “Forgive my clerk, Miss Alden. He’s somewhat overprotective.”
“Sir!” objected Harry. “You cannot believe this drab.”
“If you wore your spectacles, you would see that Miss Alden is no drab. I’m surprised you didn’t hear her identity in her voice. Come into my office, Miss Alden. I gather you escaped your captors. Harry fetch some tea.”
A True and Perfect Knight ~ Genvieve Dreyford as first seen by Sir Haven de Sessions (Order A True and Perfect Knight here.)
Sweet Jesu, she’s hideous.
Purple-black splotches ringed her eyes. Her skin paled to chalk against dark, colorless clothing. Deformity stamped her features. Her face pushed out on one side. Odd streaks hollowed the opposite cheek. A lump decorated her forehead over one eye. As much as her appearance gratified, something about it bothered him. It was that lump, he decided. “Come closer.”
She hesitated but evidently felt that compliance was the better part of valor.
When she stood by his mount’s shoulder, Haven removed one glove and grasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger. The softness of her skin shocked him. The impulse to stroke her twitched in his hand. Instead, he turned her face up to his. Astonished, he felt his eyes widen.
She was far from ugly. He had seen lumps and bruises like those that adorned her face on battle weary men. Beneath the swelling and discoloration lay a bone structure that Aphrodite would envy. Eyes that blazed green lightning glared out at him from beneath delicately arched brows. God created wide, bow-shaped lips like hers for only one purpose.
One Day’s Loving ~ Book Summary
Persephone Mae Alden is the invisible Alden sister, quiet, industrious, generous, kind-hearted, loyal and reliable. The words used to describe Mae remind her of a well-trained dog. She’s not happy about it, but what can she do? She likes her quiet life and would be seriously upset if she had to defy convention like Edith or act on instinct like Kiera. But everything changes when necessity forces her to bravery and she must choose between love and family.
A horrifying bequest convinces Boston attorney James W. Collins V that Mae Alden needs a husband, and she’s just the type of wife he wants. The two of them will be a perfect match. Refusing his offer makes no sense, so why won’t the woman accept?
A True and Perfect Knight ~ Book Summary
Baron Haven De Sessions knows a hundred reasons despise the widow Dreyford. The widow is entirely too independent, and a suspected traitor. Worst of all, she had been married to his best friend—a man Haven arrested for plotting against the king. Haven believes the treacherous widow should have given up her head, not his childhood friend. Now an oath to that same friend forces him to protect a woman he does not want and cannot trust.
Genvieve Dreyford has her own reasons to detest De Sessions. The man is far too handsome, and his reputation as Edward I's most 'true and perfect' knight has swelled the baron’s head. Worst of all, Gennie believes he betrayed his friendship with her husband to curry favor with the English king. Now, because of Haven De Sessions, Gennie has lost her home, her title and nearly everything she held dear. Only for the sake of her family, will Gennie place herself in the power of a man she fears and mistrusts.
About Rue Allyn
Author of historical, contemporary, and erotic romances, Rue Allyn fell in love with happily ever after the day she heard her first story. She is deliriously married to her sweetheart of many years and loves to hear from readers about their favorite books and real life adventures. Learn more about Rue at http://RueAllyn.com