Definition of whittle in US English:



[with object]
  • 1Carve (wood) into an object by repeatedly cutting small slices from it.

    • ‘We were forced to hotfoot it to Borneo, where we lived on the edge of the jungle for the next twenty years, whittling wood into supposedly erotic shapes that we then sold as tribal trinkets.’
    • ‘The Americans of the volunteers joked about how whittling wood was an American habit.’
    • ‘He was whittling a piece of wood the size of his palm.’
    • ‘How many millions were spent whittling that piece of wet balsam, I've no idea; it means nothing and invites ridicule.’
    • ‘Her father just sat in a corner whittling a piece of wood.’
    • ‘Seve cut his sticks to length, whittled a point in the slender end and drove it into the hosel - the round socket at the top of the iron head.’
    • ‘Later when he swore off smoking, he took up whittling wood.’
    • ‘Excitedly, Vivienne raised her camera to capture the woman on film, then snapped some shots of an old man whittling a piece of wood.’
    • ‘A willowy soldier leaned against a tree near where he stood, whittling a piece of wood.’
    • ‘Then, he painstakingly whittles each one a 10-inch handle with a kitchen knife, and waits till dark.’
    • ‘He volleyed as if he was using his racket to whittle wood, slicing this way and that and caressing the ball into submission.’
    • ‘With a jackknife, he whittled a point on a thin green stick pulled from a maple branch.’
    • ‘I really like the spey blade, as it offers a long straight edge for doing really important tasks: things like whittling a sharp point on an old stick.’
    pare, shave, peel, cut, hew, trim, carve, shape, model
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1 Carve (an object) from wood by repeatedly cutting small slices from it.
      • ‘It turns out it's whittling wooden figurines for schoolchildren.’
      • ‘And many people obviously rely on the good old Swiss Army knife or one of its derivatives for everything from trimming nails and opening bottles to putting in screws and whittling firesticks.’
      • ‘He had given the horses some grain, and now he was whittling a figure out of a piece of wood.’
    2. 1.2whittle something away/down Reduce something in size, amount, or extent by a gradual series of steps.
      ‘the short list of fifteen was whittled down to five’
      no object ‘the censors had whittled away at the racy dialogue’
      • ‘You can't help wondering why a company that whittled Hamlet down to 90 minutes needs two-and-a-half hours for a relatively obscure Chekhov story.’
      • ‘Goddard explains: ‘Gradually we just whittled the novel away.’’
      • ‘The group, which included town councillors and main figures in the development process, debated a number of options before whittling them down to three main contenders.’
      • ‘Tory MPs will whittle the candidates down to two in a series of ballots starting on October 18.’
      • ‘Vast amounts are whittled away on such concepts as benchmarking and decentralisation, but urgent road projects are still being argued over at Oireachtas committees.’
      • ‘Hundreds of hopefuls entered the competition and judges at Boss Model agency have whittled them down to 10 boys and 10 girls.’
      • ‘A panel of judges whittled them down to the last three and we thought his was by far the best.’
      • ‘On Wednesday, their provisional 67-man squad is whittled down to produce a final 37-man selection for this summer's tour to Australia.’
      • ‘Gradually the lead was whittled down until there were only three points between the sides with a few minutes remaining.’
      • ‘After a bit of experimentation, Jill is able to whittle the problem down to four steps that always cause the same behavior.’
      erode, wear away, eat away, consume, use up, reduce, diminish, undermine, weaken, threaten, sabotage, subvert, compromise, destroy, impair, mar, spoil, ruin, impede, hinder, damage, hurt, injure, cripple, disable, enfeeble, emasculate, sap, shake, break, crush
      reduce, cut down, cut back, cut, prune, trim, slim down, pare down, salami-slice, shrink, make cutbacks in, lessen, decrease, diminish, make reductions in, scale down
      View synonyms


Mid 16th century: from dialect whittle ‘knife’.