unravel

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English[edit]

Etymology[edit]

From un- +‎ ravel. Compare Dutch ontrafelen (to unravel).

Pronunciation[edit]

Verb[edit]

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) (of threads, etc.) To become separated; (of something woven, knitted, etc.) to come apart.
    • 1820, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, London: C. & J. Ollier, Act II, Scene 1, p. 63,[1]
      [] the burning threads
      Of woven cloud unravel in pale air:
    • 2015, Lesley Nneka Arimah, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” The New Yorker, 26 October, 2015,[2]
      The yarn baby lasted a good month [] before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking []
  3. (transitive, figuratively) To clear from complication or difficulty; to unfold; to solve.
    • 1683, John Dryden, “Life of Plutarch” in Plutarchs Lives, Volume 1, London: Jacob Tonson, p. 9,[3]
      [] he disputed best, and unravell’d the difficulties of Philosophy with most success when he was at Supper, and well warm’d with Wine.
    • 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 5,[4]
      I left Holmes seated in front of the smouldering fire, and long into the watches of the night I heard the low, melancholy wailings of his violin, and knew that he was still pondering over the strange problem which he had set himself to unravel.
    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
  5. (intransitive, figuratively) 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.

Usage notes[edit]

The spellings unraveling and unraveled are primarily US while unravelling and unravelled are primarily UK, other Commonwealth countries, and Ireland.

Synonyms[edit]

Derived terms[edit]

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