• winnow •
Pronunciation: win-o • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, transitive
Meaning: 1. To separate chaff from grain with a stream of air or in the wind. 2. To blow or blow through, as a breeze winnowing through her hair. 3. To remove the bad parts of anything, to filter out the undesirable.
Notes: Today's word is almost an oddity: a very lovely genuine English word, not borrowed from any language, but inherited directly through our Germanic roots from Proto-Indo-European. This means that the members of its family are all breathtakingly English derivations: winnowing and winnower.
In Play: People in some countries still winnow grain, but in the West we use today's Good Word in reference to other windy processes: "The sound of the wind winnowing through the leaves of the maple tree in his backyard brought a sense of approaching autumn to Gilliam's half-dozing mind." The sense of this word, however, has greatly broadened to refer to any type of filtering that amounts to removing the undesirable from the desirable: "The new president decided to apply the Blood-Wood Theory of faculty development to the college by winnowing out the dead wood and replacing it with fresh blood."
Word History: Today's Good Word started out in Old English as windwian, a suffixed form of wind, the primary motor of winnowing in days of yore. Almost all Germanic languages have some form of wind as their word for "wind": Dutch wind, German Wind. English window was borrowed from Old Norse vindauga, a compound of the Norse variant vind + auga "eye". The original PIE root was went- "blowing", which Latin turned into ventus "wind", borrowed by English in several forms, including vent and ventilate. We also find words in other languages that lost the N over the course of their development: Russian veter "wind" and Lithuanian vetra "gale". (Today thank Sally Rose for suggesting a Good Word so lovely that we simply could not winnow it from our ever-growing backlist of suggested words.)