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From the definition found at Merriam-Webster and elsewhere, it seems that to ravel has completely opposite meanings; i.e. it means to unravel, to disentangle as well as to entangle.

What's going on here?

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reminds me of the verb 'to cleave', meaning both to stick together and to cut in half –  Claudiu Oct 25 '10 at 13:46
    
I remember reading about 45 years ago that 'ravel' and 'unravel' meant the same thing. I had never heard 'ravel' used then, and I don't believe I ever have since. Is it an American thing? –  Colin Fine Oct 25 '10 at 16:43
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@Claudiu: cleave and cleave are actually two different verbs that happen to be spelled the same in contemporary English. The "stick together" cleave comes from Old English clifian and is related to clay, while the "cut in half" cleave comes from Old English cleofan and is related to glyph. (This is quite different from ravel, which is actually one word with two contradictory meanings.) –  RegDwigнt Oct 26 '10 at 14:24

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Etymonline to the rescue:

1580s, "to untangle, unwind," also "to become tangled or confused," from Du. ravelen "to tangle, fray, unweave," from rafel "frayed thread." The seemingly contradictory senses of this word (ravel and unravel are both synonyms and antonyms) are reconciled by its roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven, they get tangled.

See also this related question: English words that are their own antonyms.

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