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to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information").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

But as the end of the 2010s approaches, reality TV has become an ouroboros, so self-referential and saturated that opportunities for advancement — or growth, or shock — have winnowed. Jon Caramanica, New York Times, "On ‘Jersey Shore Family Vacation’ and ‘Trading Spaces,’ Reality TV Eats Itself," 4 Apr. 2018 Now, the submission period has closed, and the museum has winnowed the pool of designs down to five possibilities. Ryan P. Smith, Smithsonian, "This Innovative Memorial Will Soon Honor Native American Veterans," 11 May 2018 The primary to winnow the field in both the Senate and gubernatorial races is Aug. 14. Washington Post, "Republican Governors Association books $5M for Walker ads," 9 Apr. 2018 In state after state after state, Republican governments have made voting more cumbersome, in order to winnow out the disproportionately poor and minority voters who such restrictions would discourage from the hassle. Jonathan Chait, Daily Intelligencer, "The Republican Court and the Era of Minority Rule," 27 June 2018 The jury winnowed the field to five finalists in late January. Author: Hannah Natanson, Anchorage Daily News, "Design chosen for first national monument to Native American veterans," 27 June 2018 Congressional Democrats and liberals, who argue that the requirements are a means to winnow Medicaid roles, contend that people in the program capable of working already have jobs and that others need health care to help equip them to work. Amy Goldstein, Washington Post, "Government reorganization plan embraces conservative goals for the safety net," 21 June 2018 The actual number is 105,990 statewide, and 15,872 in Miami-Dade as of March 1, but point taken––it’s hard to winnow down the options, to find the best attorney for your lawsuit, judge, and budget. Tarpley Hitt, miamiherald, "Could your next lawyer be a robot? Tech firms making case for artificial intelligence | Miami Herald," 18 Apr. 2018 To winnow the many outfits clambering in these fields, Mr. Lippert will assess the durability of a company’s competitive advantage and the quality of its management, in addition to its fundamentals. Tim Gray, New York Times, "Three Funds Find Routes to Top Performance in a Rough Market," 13 Apr. 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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2 Oct 2018

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Time Traveler for winnow

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

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More Definitions for winnow



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

See words that rhyme with winnow

Spanish Central: Translation of winnow

Nglish: Translation of winnow for Spanish Speakers

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