win·​now | \ ˈwi-(ˌ)nō How to pronounce winnow (audio) \
winnowed; winnowing; winnows

Definition of winnow

 (Entry 1 of 2)

transitive verb

1a(1) : to remove (something, such as chaff) by a current of air
(2) : to get rid of (something undesirable or unwanted) : remove often used with outwinnow out certain inaccuracies— Stanley Walker
b(1) : separate, sift an old hand at winnowing what is true and significant— Oscar Lewis
(2) : select
2a : to treat (something, such as grain) by exposure to a current of air so that waste matter is eliminated
b : to free of unwanted or inferior elements : pare
c : narrow, reduce winnowed the field to four contenders
3 : to blow on : fan the wind winnowing his thin white hairTime

intransitive verb

1 : to separate chaff from grain by fanning
2 : to separate desirable and undesirable elements



Definition of winnow (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : a device for winnowing
2a : the action of winnowing
b : a motion resembling that of winnowing

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Other Words from winnow


winnower \ ˈwi-​nə-​wər How to pronounce winnower (audio) \ noun

Winnow Has Old English Roots


Beginning as windwian in Old English, winnow first referred to the removal of chaff from grain by a current of air. This use was soon extended to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information"). People then began using the word for the selection of the most desirable elements (as in "winnowing out the true statements from the lies"). The association of winnow with the movement of air led to the meaning "to beat with or as if with wings," but that use is rare enough that it is found only in Merriam-Webster Unabridged. The word's last meaning ("to blow on or fan") blew in at the turn of the 19th century.

Examples of winnow in a Sentence

Verb The least qualified applicants were winnowed out of the initial pool. Harvesters winnowed the chaff from the wheat.
Recent Examples on the Web: Verb Just 12 days in, biospherian Jayne Poynter accidentally cut off the tip of her finger in a threshing machine while winnowing rice. Jennifer Ouellette, Ars Technica, "Review: Revisit the controversial Biosphere 2 project with Spaceship Earth," 25 May 2020 Prospective jurors are typically brought to court in groups of 60 to 80 and winnowed down to 12 in two to three days. Bob Egelko,, "Which Bay Area courts are poised to resume jury trials?," 22 May 2020 To advance knowledge, people must subject authorities to scrutiny, winnowing away the unreliable. Richard Gunderman, The Conversation, "The ‘first scientist’s’ 800-year-old tonic for what ails us: The truth," 1 May 2020 Biden, now the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, has promised to pick a woman as his running mate, significantly winnowing the field of likely contenders. Naomi Lim, Washington Examiner, "Terri Sewell could bolster Biden's Obama restoration ticket," 26 Apr. 2020 Dave O’Connor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is studying SARS-CoV-2 in cynomolgus monkeys, says the field will ultimately winnow down models. Jon Cohen, Science | AAAS, "Mice, hamsters, ferrets, monkeys. Which lab animals can help defeat the new coronavirus?," 13 Apr. 2020 The six-member group — Shownu, Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, Joohoney, and I.M. (seventh member Wonho left in 2019) — debuted in 2015 after appearing on a competition reality show, which winnowed down contestants to the final group. Raisa Bruner, Time, "The 5 Best Songs of the Week, from Billie Eilish to Monsta X," 14 Feb. 2020 The nod comes a month ahead of March 3 Super Tuesday balloting in California and 15 other jurisdictions, encompassing over a third of the US population, that may help winnow what remains a highly unsettled Democratic field. Jonathan Handel, Billboard, "Bernie Sanders Nabs Endorsement From L.A. Musicians Union Local," 13 Feb. 2020 With the current trend toward de-cluttering and downsizing, there are plenty of books about how to winnow down possessions to the few that are truly necessary and loved. Washington Post, "Small home living: not `downsizing’ but `right-sizing’," 28 Jan. 2020 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun But a larger field generally means a longer contest: A basic rule of presidential primaries is that the more quickly the field winnows, the sooner the eventual winner can reach the majority of delegates necessary to win the nomination. Lisa Lerer, New York Times, "On Politics: We Could Be Here Awhile," 12 Feb. 2020 Even if the field winnows, the race appears neck and neck. Caitlin Conant, CBS News, "2020 Daily Trail Markers: Poll has Pete Buttigieg narrowly leading in New Hampshire," 9 Jan. 2020 That amount of freedom kind of winnows and expands throughout the piece. Seth Colter Walls, New York Times, "A Long-Lost Score, Rebuilt With the Help of a Photo," 19 Jan. 2018 And by splintering the vote in Ohio and Florida, Mr. Cruz also risks handing Mr. Trump advantages in momentum and delegates that could be unstoppable, no matter how much the field winnows. Jonathan Martin, New York Times, "Democratic Debate: Analysis," 5 Mar. 2016

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'winnow.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of winnow


before the 12th century, in the meaning defined at transitive sense 1a(1)


1580, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for winnow


Middle English winewen, from Old English windwian to fan, winnow; akin to Old High German wintōn to fan, Latin vannus winnowing fan, ventus wind — more at wind entry 1

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The first known use of winnow was before the 12th century

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Last Updated

11 Jun 2020

Cite this Entry

“Winnow.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 8 Aug. 2020.

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More Definitions for winnow


How to pronounce winnow (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of winnow

: to remove (people or things that are less important, desirable, etc.) from a larger group or list : to make (a list of possible choices) smaller by removing the less desirable choices
: to remove (the unwanted coverings of seeds) from grain by throwing the grain up in the air and letting the wind blow the unwanted parts away


win·​now | \ ˈwi-nō How to pronounce winnow (audio) \
winnowed; winnowing

Kids Definition of winnow

1 : to remove (as waste from grain) by a current of air
2 : to sort or separate from a larger group

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More from Merriam-Webster on winnow

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for winnow

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with winnow

Spanish Central: Translation of winnow

Nglish: Translation of winnow for Spanish Speakers

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