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

Keep scrolling for more

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to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information").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 The new 173-page edition describes more than 125 trees, each illustrated with several photos, as well as keys that winnow down the genus (plant group). oregonlive, "With new edition, ‘Trees to Know in Oregon and Washington’ turns 70," 30 Mar. 2021 That part of the series moves quickly and usually involves some brutal cuts to winnow the group of contestants. Mary Colurso |, al, "Alabama teen gets a golden ticket (and a ‘Roll Tide!’) on ‘American Idol’," 8 Mar. 2021 That will winnow the ranks from about 600,000 personnel in 2019 to about 530,000 by the end of this year, according to South Korean figures. Timothy W. Martin, WSJ, "North Korean Defector’s DMZ Crossing Raises Questions About Border Security," 24 Feb. 2021 Such an endorsement, if Trump gives it, could winnow the Republican field in North Carolina, where Trump twice earned the state's electoral votes. Gary D. Robertson, Star Tribune, "Mark Walker takes early jump into N. Carolina Senate race," 1 Dec. 2020 The goal was to winnow down the story, to get to the basics but bring a human element to it. Connie Nelson, Star Tribune, "Q&A: With Spike Carlsen, author of "A Walk Around the Block"," 26 Oct. 2020 Under Georgia law, there was no special election primary to winnow the field. Brian Slodysko, Star Tribune, "EXPLAINER: Senate majority outcome may take weeks or more," 31 Oct. 2020 In the past, authorities have set up roadblocks deeper in the country to winnow down larger groups. Star Tribune, "Hundreds of Honduran migrants set out for US amid pandemic," 1 Oct. 2020 Two-thirds of the trials also used exclusion criteria that weren’t specific to age, but which would disproportionately winnow out older adults, such as having preexisting conditions. Pratibha Gopalakrishna, STAT, "New research shows older adults are still often excluded from clinical trials," 30 Sep. 2020 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, "Races across Arizona will determine fate of Arizona Legislature as Democrats seek to make history," 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, "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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about winnow

Time Traveler for winnow

Time Traveler

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

See more words from the same century

Listen to Our Podcast about winnow

Statistics for winnow

Last Updated

5 Apr 2021

Cite this Entry

“Winnow.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

Keep scrolling for more

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 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

Comments on winnow

What made you want to look up winnow? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


Test Your Vocabulary

Name that Thing: Flower Edition

Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!