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 sensitive material"). People then began using the word for the selection of the most desirable elements (as in "winnowing out the qualified applicants"). The association of winnow with the movement of air also led to the meanings "to brandish" and "to beat with or as if with wings," but those uses are now rare. The last meanings blew in around the beginning of the 19th century: they are "to blow on" and "to blow in gusts."
Examples of winnow in a Sentence
The least qualified applicants were winnowed out of the initial pool.
Harvesters winnowed the chaff from the wheat.
Recent Examples on the Web
Daniel Bachman: When the Roses Come Again [Three Lobed]
Daniel Bachman recorded When the Roses Come Again in a cabin in Shenandoah National Park, winnowing a week’s worth of eight-hour improvisations into 15 tracks.—Nina Corcoran, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2023 End of carousel The beats of the story told in these episodes are so TV famous, the images so recently and vividly seared into the collective memory, that the show’s window of artistic license seems to winnow ever narrower, leaving it little choice but to meticulously re-create them.—Ashley Fetters Maloy, Washington Post, 16 Nov. 2023 Prior to the 2024 show, the Recording Academy winnowed the Big Four categories from 10 back down to eight nominees, and three new categories were added this year: Best Alternative Jazz Album, Best Pop Dance Recording, and Best African Music Performance.—Evan Minsker, Pitchfork, 10 Nov. 2023 Just five candidates took the stage after some dropped out and campaign requirements winnowed down the field.—Rachel Cohrs and Sarah Owermohle, STAT, 8 Nov. 2023 The directors — apparently not people to take things easy on themselves — have winnowed down the story from the epic 1000-page sprawl of Literature Nobel-winner Wladyslaw Reymont’s novel, a book so famous in Poland it’s taught in schools.—Jessica Kiang, Variety, 11 Oct. 2023 Such efforts read like distillations; they are winnowed.—David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times, 22 Sep. 2023 Between shouldering the financial burden, enrolling in unemployment benefits, and sending out applications for dozens of new roles, the process can often drag on for months, winnowing away at both one’s savings account and one’s mental health.—Jane Thier, Fortune, 9 Oct. 2023 There’s no good answer for this phenomenon, except for the other candidates to keep making their case, and hope there’s a breakout or the field begins to winnow.—Rich Lowry, National Review, 29 Sep. 2023
There the trillions begin to feel nature’s winnow: an ocean current is a fluky thing, and it cannot always be relied on to carry a cod egg where a young cod wants to be.—Robert Kunzig, Discover Magazine, 11 Nov. 2019 The Final Four swallows all of it up, like whales eat winnows.—Josh Criswell, Chron, 3 Apr. 2023 Doreen Fernandez, a Filipino food historian, suggested that the modern idea of street food in the Philippines is rooted in the interdependence of agricultural and fishing communities, which relied on each other to plant, plow and harvest fields, winnow rice, or mend fishing nets.—Jonah Valdez, Los Angeles Times, 1 Aug. 2022 But Republicans have seen their majorities in the Legislature winnow over the past few years to 31-29 in the House and 17-13 in the Senate and voters could decide Tuesday to put Democrats in charge.—Andrew Oxford, The Arizona Republic, 3 Nov. 2020 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, 12 Feb. 2020 Even if the field winnows, the race appears neck and neck.—Caitlin Conant, CBS News, 9 Jan. 2020 That amount of freedom kind of winnows and expands throughout the piece.—Seth Colter Walls, New York Times, 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, 5 Mar. 2016 See More
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'winnow.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
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