win·​now | \ ˈwi-(ˌ)nō \
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

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Other Words from winnow


winnower \ ˈwi-​nə-​wər \ 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to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information").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


The least qualified applicants were winnowed out of the initial pool. Harvesters winnowed the chaff from the wheat.

Recent Examples on the Web: Verb

Amazon’s committee of executives winnowed the field to 20 finalists in January. Matt Day, The Seattle Times, "Amazon selects New York, Northern Virginia, for HQ2 expansion, reports say," 13 Nov. 2018 Airbus in recent years has tried to winnow its management ranks. Robert Wall, WSJ, "Airbus Picks Future Chief Executive," 8 Oct. 2018 To better her odds, Ms. Nixon would need to winnow Mr. Cuomo’s strong support among black voters, who turned out in disproportionately large numbers in the 2014 primary, according to exit polls. New York Times, "Black Voters Have More Leverage in This Governor’s Race. They Mean to Use It.," 13 June 2018 The Allure of Immortality By Lyn Millner (2015) 2Here’s how a bizarre cult winnowed its way into an otherwise conservative Florida community in the late 1800s. Jeff Guinn, WSJ, "Five Best: Jeff Guinn on Books About Cults," 23 Aug. 2018 Attorneys argued that without an election to winnow the field of candidates in the first year in decades that all judicial elections are partisan, the party would not have a way to let voters know its candidate of choice on the November ballot. Jim Morrill And Anne Blythe, charlotteobserver, "How this GOP candidate could help Democrats keep control of the NC Supreme Court," 4 July 2018 California cities, on the other hand, have had numerous smaller quakes that have winnowed those most susceptible to quakes. Elliot Njus,, "Easing earthquake mandate for old brick buildings might just delay inevitable, experts say," 9 May 2018 The four semifinalists, winnowed down from a field of 32, have ensured that the coveted World Cup will remain in Europe, a continent with overwhelming dominance on the world soccer stage. Kaitlyn Schallhorn, Fox News, "World Cup final four teams set with elimination of host team Russia," 7 July 2018 The jury winnowed the field to five finalists in late January. Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, "Design is chosen for first national monument to Native American military veterans," 26 June 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

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

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Last Updated

9 Jan 2019

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Time Traveler for winnow

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

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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 \
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

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with winnow

Spanish Central: Translation of winnow

Nglish: Translation of winnow for Spanish Speakers

Comments on winnow

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to express emotion in a dramatic way

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