Printable Version
Pronunciation: r-vêl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb

Meaning: 1. To entangle, weave together. 2. To disentangle, to fray, to unweave.

Notes: Today's Good Word is what Richard Lederer has called a 'contranym', a word with a meaning opposite its meaning. Originally, this verb meant "to entangle", but it has come to mean just the opposite: "to disentangle" and from there to "fray, unweave". Even more fascinating, both meanings seem to have been used in the 17th century, when this word first appeared, for unravel appeared immediately after its arrival. So, both words have been with us for about 300 years. Keep in mind that ravel may also be used as a noun in the sense of a tangle, as to comb the ravels out of her hair.

In Play: No doubt because of its contradictory meanings, ravel has all but disappeared from English. But now that unravel relieves ravel of its negative meaning, lets focus on the positive meaning of ravel: "Wyatt Hertz had raveled his personal affairs into such a tangled mess, he couldn't even sort them out with the help of two therapists." As you can see, these words work well metaphorically: "It took the former friends of Tommy Rott several days to unravel the mystery of who put the vodka in the punch at the church social."

Word History: We know little about the origins of this word beyond Dutch. It is a Germanic word, for it shows up only in Germanic languages and a few borrowings from Germanic elsewhere. Dutch was the origin of both English variants: rafelen "to entangle" and ontrafelen "to untangle". These verbs are based on the noun ravel "a loose thread". In the past they were sometimes spelled with a V instead of an F, which are identical sounds except that the vocal cords vibrate in pronouncing V but not F. The same Germanic root gave us the raff in riffraff, via Old French raffer "to sweep together", borrowed from Dutch rafelen or one of its relatives. Raffle came from the same French verb. It originally was the name of a dice game that must have resembled sweeping the floor. (We don't want to ravel this discussion to the point we forget to thank Susan Kappel for suggesting such a lovely word with such a tangled past.)

Dr. Goodword,

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