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to describe the removal of anything undesirable or unwanted (a current example of this sense would be "winnowing out outdated information").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

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 Hoyle took 325 of the 540 votes in a runoff with Labour colleague Chris Bryant after the seven-member field was winnowed down in three previous voting rounds. Washington Post, "Lindsay Hoyle chosen to replace Bercow as UK Commons speaker," 4 Nov. 2019 About 3,000 applications for me-too drug approvals were withdrawn when the government announced the new rules, winnowing out many flaky firms. The Economist, "China’s pharmaceuticals industry is growing up," 26 Sep. 2019 Mandarich suggested the primary field will winnow quickly by the end of the year, limiting how much damage Democrats can do to one another. Nic Garcia, The Denver Post, "Colorado Democrats usually play nice with each other. That could change in 2020.," 25 Aug. 2019 As the Democrats winnow their presidential field, Trump is searching for a new DNI who can serve his desire to hold on to power before and after November 2020. Jefferson Morley, The New Republic, "Democrats Are Trapped in Trump’s “Deep State” War," 16 Sep. 2019 The 2020 field is still large, with 17 candidates but is slowly winnowing. CBS News, "Julián Castro eliminates campaign staff in 2 states," 5 Nov. 2019 The nonprofit that manages the city’s historic collection is winnowing down a large number of items with a warehouse sale this weekend. Sal Pizarro, The Mercury News, "Viva CalleSJ activating San Jose streets, parks on Sunday," 19 Sep. 2019 The debate in general might be more fiery than previous ones because the field is winnowing more rapidly, Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School Policy and Government, tells TIME. Madeleine Carlisle, Time, "2020 Democrats Will Face Off on One Stage for the First Time This Week. Here's Everything to Know About the September Debate," 8 Sep. 2019 The fatal flaw in their argument is that evolution didn’t just test sequences randomly: The process of natural selection winnowed the field. Quanta Magazine, "Mathematical Simplicity May Drive Evolution’s Speed," 29 Nov. 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 entry 1

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

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Last Updated

11 Dec 2019

Cite this Entry

“Winnow.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 15 December 2019.

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More Definitions for winnow


How to pronounce winnow (audio)

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

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for winnow

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with winnow

Spanish Central: Translation of winnow

Nglish: Translation of winnow for Spanish Speakers

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delight or enjoyment

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