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[reed] /rid/
the straight stalk of any of various tall grasses, especially of the genera Phragmites and Arundo, growing in marshy places.
any of the plants themselves.
such stalks or plants collectively.
anything made from such a stalk or from something similar, as an arrow.
  1. a pastoral or rustic musical pipe made from a reed or from the hollow stalk of some other plant.
  2. a small, flexible piece of cane or metal that, attached to the mouth of any of various wind instruments, is set into vibration by a stream of air and, in turn, sets into vibration the air column enclosed in the tube of the instrument.
  3. reed instrument.
Textiles. the series of parallel strips of wires in a loom that force the weft up to the web and separate the threads of the warp.
an ancient unit of length, equal to 6 cubits. Ezek. 40:5.
verb (used with object)
to decorate with reed.
to thatch with or as if with reed.
to make vertical grooves on (the edge of a coin, medal, etc.).
a broken reed, a person or thing too frail or weak to be relied on for support:
Under stress he showed himself to be a broken reed.
Origin of reed
before 900; Middle English; Old English hrēod; cognate with German, Dutch riet
Related forms
reedlike, adjective Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for broken reed
Historical Examples
  • Nothing else, perhaps, could have shown her so well what a broken reed he was.

    K Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • But how can one love such a man—a broken reed, whom one can never depend on?

    The Live Corpse Leo Tolstoy
  • But he was leaning on a broken reed, for Beta was himself a backslider.

    George Muller of Bristol Arthur T. Pierson
  • He was weary of promises and of leaning on that broken reed, Louis XV.

  • A mother's leanin's is the soul's deceivin's,—and yer leanin' on a broken reed.

  • The company of tanks had been, apparently, nothing but a broken reed.

    A Company of Tanks W. H. L. Watson
  • In trusting to that she would indeed trust to a broken reed.

    A Fair Mystery

    Bertha M. Clay
  • This seemed but a broken reed to depend on; and yet nothing else now remained.

    Hide and Seek Wilkie Collins
  • Now mind this, a teacher who cannot govern himself is a broken reed.

    The Parson O' Dumford George Manville Fenn
  • It takes away "a broken reed," to give us the "Rock of ages."

    Notes on the Book of Genesis Charles Henry Mackintosh
British Dictionary definitions for broken reed


any of various widely distributed tall grasses of the genus Phragmites, esp P. communis, that grow in swamps and shallow water and have jointed hollow stalks
the stalk, or stalks collectively, of any of these plants, esp as used for thatching
  1. a thin piece of cane or metal inserted into the tubes of certain wind instruments, which sets in vibration the air column inside the tube
  2. a wind instrument or organ pipe that sounds by means of a reed
one of the several vertical parallel wires on a loom that may be moved upwards to separate the warp threads
a small semicircular architectural moulding See also reeding
an ancient Hebrew unit of length equal to six cubits
an archaic word for arrow
broken reed, a weak, unreliable, or ineffectual person
verb (transitive)
to fashion into or supply with reeds or reeding
to thatch using reeds
Word Origin
Old English hreod; related to Old Saxon hriod, Old High German hriot


Sir Carol. 1906–76, English film director. His films include The Third Man (1949), An Outcast of the Islands (1951), and Oliver! (1968), for which he won an Oscar
Lou. born 1942, US rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist: member of the Velvet Underground (1965–70). His albums include Transformer (1972), Berlin (1973), Street Hassle (1978), New York (1989), Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), and The Raven (2003)
Walter. 1851–1902, US physician, who proved that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes (1900)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for broken reed



"tall, broad-leafed grass growing in wet places," Old English hreod "reed, rush," from Proto-Germanic *kreut- "reed" (cf. Old Saxon hraid, Old Frisian hriad, Middle Dutch ried, Dutch riet, Old High German hriot, German Ried), with no known cognates beyond Germanic.

Meaning "musical pipe made from a reed stem" is from late 14c. (reed-pipe is from c.1300). As part of the mouthpiece of a musical instrument it is attested from 1520s. Meaning "a reed instrument" is from 1838.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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broken reed in Medicine

Reed (rēd), Walter. 1851-1902.

American surgeon who led the commission that proved experimentally that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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broken reed in Science
American physician and army surgeon who proved in 1900 that yellow fever was transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. His research led to the mosquito eradication programs carried out by William Gorgas that virtually eradicated yellow fever from Havana, Cuba, and from the Panama Canal Zone.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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broken reed in Culture

reed definition

A thin piece of wood or plastic used in many woodwind instruments. It vibrates when the player holds it in the mouth and blows over it (as with a single reed) or through it (as with a double reed). Clarinets and saxophones use a single reed; bassoons and oboes use a double reed.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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Idioms and Phrases with broken reed

broken reed

A weak or unreliable support, as in I'd counted on her to help, but she turned out to be a broken reed. The idea behind this idiom, first recorded about 1593, was already present in a mid-15th-century translation of a Latin tract, “Trust not nor lean not upon a windy reed.”


The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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