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 out winnow 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

Other Words from winnow


winnower \ ˈwi-​nə-​wər How to pronounce winnow (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 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

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 While Congress enacted a law that thwarted Mr. Obama’s plan to close the prison by transferring some detainees to a different facility in the United States, the administration still managed to greatly winnow down the number of prisoners there. New York Times, 4 Feb. 2022 That would winnow out most regular taverns, and any restaurant that serves dinner. Steve Lord,, 8 Apr. 2022 Tension holds this symphony together like a suspension bridge — horns and woodwinds stretching into tense beams that winnow into near silence, strings awakening like dawn behind a cityscape, vertiginous towers of horns toppling over. Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2022 Japan and Russia held their national competitions to winnow down crowded fields in late December, an additional boost in timing for countries that are also not currently facing the same spread of Omicron as North America. Louise Radnofsky, WSJ, 3 Jan. 2022 The White House sees the new requirements as a potent tool to winnow down the ranks of the tens of millions of Americans who have thus far refused to get a shot. David Koenig,, 4 Nov. 2021 Given how Manchin has helped to winnow the bill’s climate provision, even its passage would necessitate further immediate action on climate change via executive authority. Kate Aronoff, The New Republic, 24 Jan. 2022 Every bit of additional weight matters on a bike, rewarding riders who winnow their needs to a state of functional minimalism. Washington Post, 13 Jan. 2022 The lawsuit alleges that in the early 2000′s, John Deere took steps to winnow repair providers, requiring businesses to become either repair or sales entities but not both. al, 22 Jan. 2022 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun 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 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.

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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winnowing basket

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Last Updated

11 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Winnow.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for winnow


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

More from Merriam-Webster on winnow

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for winnow

Nglish: Translation of winnow for Spanish Speakers


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