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

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Other Words from winnow


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to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information").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


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 that wasn't enough to win the veteran safety a roster spot Friday as the Lions began winnowing their roster to 53 players. Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press, "Detroit Lions release Teez Tabor, Andrew Adams in first wave of cuts," 30 Aug. 2019 O’Rourke’s presence had been assured by having met both the donor and polling criteria set by the Democratic National Committee to winnow down the field of 20 aspirants who competed on stage two nights in June and then in July. Bill Lambrecht,, "Attacks on racism and Trump resonate for Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro," 20 Aug. 2019 Castro needs another strong debate performance to raise his profile and be relevant when the field of candidates winnows. Gromer Jeffers Jr., Dallas News, "In this week's Democratic presidential debates, is it make or break for Beto O'Rourke, Julián Castro?," 29 July 2019 Castro is among a dozen candidates in the race who have yet to meet Democratic National Committee popularity requirements aimed at winnowing the field by the third round of debates, scheduled for Houston Sept. 12 and 13. Bill Lambrecht,, "Julián Castro calls for federal gun license, better hate group monitoring," 9 Aug. 2019 Before the next debate, scheduled for September 12th in Houston, the eligibility requirements for participation are to be raised, in effect winnowing half the field. I.k. | Washington, The Economist, "Joe Biden comes under fire in the second Democratic debate," 1 Aug. 2019 Larry Upshaw, executive director of Ageless Authors, said more than 50 judges winnowed approximately 450 international submissions to three finalists., "Portland’s ‘gangster’ crows inspired poem that won international contest," 17 July 2019 Maintaining a house while caring for children is an exercise in winnowing down what must be done. Chloe Schama, Vogue, "Women Still Do Most of the Housework. Can a Robot Help?," 9 July 2019 Dawid Potgieter, a senior program officer at the Templeton World Charity Foundation who is coordinating the endeavor, says that this is just the beginning of a sustained effort to winnow down theories of consciousness. Quanta Magazine, "Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas," 6 Mar. 2019

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 entry 1

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18 Sep 2019

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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 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

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More from Merriam-Webster on winnow

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with winnow

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for winnow

Spanish Central: Translation of 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).


formidable, illustrious, or eminent

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