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un- +‎ ravel

First known use was in 1603.

Compare Dutch ontrafelen


unravel (third-person singular simple present unravels, present participle unraveling or unravelling, simple past and past participle unraveled or unravelled)

  1. (transitive) To separate the threads (of); disentangle.
    Stop playing with the seam of the tablecloth! You'll unravel it.
    Mother couldn't unravel the ball of wool after the cat had played with it.
  2. (intransitive) To become undone; to collapse.
    • 2010, Ian Cowie, "State pension Ponzi scheme unravels with retirement at 70", The Telegraph, June 24th, 2010,
      The great Ponzi scheme that lies behind our State pension is unravelling – as they all do eventually – because money being taken from new investors is insufficient to honour promises issued to earlier generations.
  3. (transitive, figuratively) To clear from complication or difficulty; to unfold; to solve.
    to unravel a plot
    to unravel a mystery
    to unravel the confusion
  4. (transitive, figuratively) To separate the connected or united parts of; to throw into disorder; to confuse.
    • Dryden
      Art shall be conjured for it, and nature all unravelled.
    to unravel the global compromise achieved in the Constitutional Treaty
    to unravel the broad consensus which was created

Usage notes[edit]

unraveling and unraveled are primarily US while unravelling and unravelled are primarily UK.


Derived terms[edit]