New Word Wednesday: ravel vs unravel

Happy Wednesday! Here are your new words for the week:


ravel verb

  • untangle something

I finally finished raveling this yarn.

  • confuse or complicate (a question or situation)

I don’t want him to help. He’ll only ravel things further.

  • unravel; fray
    (as adjective ravelleda shirt with a raveled hem


unravel verb

  • undo (twisted, knitted, or woven threads)

If you pull that thread, it will unravel the whole sweater.

  • investigate and solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling)

They attempted to unravel the timeline of the evening.

  • become undone
    Part of the hem had unraveled.
    All his work setting up the event quickly unraveled.


Right. Well that couldn’t be much more confusing. Let’s try to unravel this situation!

  1. When you’re talking about an object, you first have to ravel the tangled yarn, then you can knit the sweater, being careful not to unravel the whole thing.

  2. When you’re talking about a complicated situation, raveling will make it worse, while unraveling will solve it.

  3. If you’re talking about a shirt hem or other piece of fabric, the two words pretty much mean the same thing. Either way, it’s frayed.

So how can these two words mean both the same and opposite things? The words came from the Dutch ravelen “to tangle, fray”, rafelen “to unweave”, and from rafel “frayed thread”. The word has roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven from the final product, they get tangled. So you can unravel a sweater and get a tangled ball of yarn, which you would then have to ravel.

The many languages English has borrowed from can make unraveling word origins a confusing exercise!


Enjoy your new words!






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