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


  • IPA(key): /ʌnˈɹævəl/
    • (file)


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

  1. (transitive) To separate the threads (of); disentangle.
    Synonyms: disentangle, unsnarl
    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.
    Synonyms: solve, unriddle
    to unravel a plot
    to unravel a mystery
    to unravel the confusion
    • 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.
    • 1704, [Jonathan Swift], “Section IX. A Digression Concerning the Original, the Use and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth.”, in A Tale of a Tub. [], London: [] John Nutt, [], OCLC 752990886, pages 169–170:
      The preſent Argument is the moſt abſtracted that ever I engaged in, it ſtrains my Faculties to their higheſt Stretch; and I deſire the Reader to attend with utmoſt perpenſity; For, I now proceed to unravel this knotty Point.
    • 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.
    • 2018, James Lambert, “Anglo-Indian slang in dictionaries on historical principles”, in World Englishes, volume 37, page 255:
      Besides assisting in unravelling these two etymological conundrums, the present research also made an effort to approach a greater accuracy in presenting the original sources of borrowed words.
  4. (transitive, figuratively) To separate the connected or united parts of; to throw into disorder; to confuse.
    to unravel the global compromise achieved in the Constitutional Treaty
    to unravel the broad consensus which was created
    • 2020 June 3, Andrew Mourant, “A safer railway in a greener habitat”, in Rail, page 58:
      Storm Charlie had raged throught [sic] the night and was unleashing further gusts on the morning that RAIL was due to inspect a vegetation management project in Kent. Bit by bit, the train timetable unravelled. A trip beginning at Bradford-on-Avon belatedly reached Bath, but that turned out to be journey's end.
  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 notesEdit

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

Derived termsEdit