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verb (used with object), spelled or spelt, spell·ing.
  1. to name, write, or otherwise give the letters, in order, of (a word, syllable, etc.): Did I spell your name right?
  2. (of letters) to form (a word, syllable, etc.): The letters spelled a rather rude word.
  3. to read letter by letter or with difficulty (often followed by out): She painfully spelled out the message.
  4. to discern or find, as if by reading or study (often followed by out).
  5. to signify; amount to: This delay spells disaster for us.
verb (used without object), spelled or spelt, spell·ing.
  1. to name, write, or give the letters of words, syllables, etc.: He spells poorly.
  2. to express words by letters, especially correctly.
Verb Phrases
  1. spell down, to outspell others in a spelling match.
  2. spell out,
    1. to explain something explicitly, so that the meaning is unmistakable: Must I spell it out for you?
    2. to write out in full or enumerate the letters of which a word is composed: The title “Ph.D.” is seldom spelled out.

Origin of spell1

1250–1300; Middle English spellen < Old French espeller < Germanic; compare Old English spellian to talk, announce (derivative of spell spell2), Old High German -spellōn, Old Norse spjalla, Gothic spillōn
Related formsspell·a·ble, adjectiveun·spell·a·ble, adjective


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5. foretell, portend, mean, promise.


  1. a word, phrase, or form of words supposed to have magic power; charm; incantation: The wizard cast a spell.
  2. a state or period of enchantment: She was under a spell.
  3. any dominating or irresistible influence; fascination: the spell of fine music.

Origin of spell2

before 900; Middle English spell, Old English: discourse; cognate with Old High German spel, Old Norse spjall, Gothic spill tale; see spell1, gospel
Related formsspell·ful, adjectivespell-like, adjective


  1. a continuous course or period of work or other activity: to take a spell at the wheel.
  2. a turn of work so taken.
  3. a turn, bout, fit, or period of anything experienced or occurring: a spell of coughing.
  4. an indefinite interval or space of time: Come visit us for a spell.
  5. a period of weather of a specified kind: a hot spell.
  6. Australian. a rest period.
  7. Archaic. a person or set of persons taking a turn of work to relieve another.
verb (used with object)
  1. to take the place of for a time; relieve: Let me spell you at the wheel.
  2. Australian. to declare or give a rest period to.
verb (used without object)
  1. Australian. to have or take a rest period.

Origin of spell3

1585–95; (v.) alteration of earlier spele to stand instead of, relieve, spare, Middle English spelen, Old English spelian; akin to Old English spala, gespelia a substitute; (noun) akin to the v. (perhaps continuing Old English gespelia)


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4. while, bit, piece.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

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British Dictionary definitions for spell


verb spells, spelling, spelt or spelled
  1. to write or name in correct order the letters that comprise the conventionally accepted form of (a word or part of a word)
  2. (tr) (of letters) to go to make up the conventionally established form of (a word) when arranged correctlyd-o-g spells dog
  3. (tr) to indicate or signifysuch actions spell disaster for our cause
See also spell out
Derived Formsspellable, adjective

Word Origin

C13: from Old French espeller, of Germanic origin; related to Old Norse spialla to talk, Middle High German spellen


  1. a verbal formula considered as having magical force
  2. any influence that can control the mind or character; fascination
  3. a state induced by or as if by the pronouncing of a spell; tranceto break the spell
  4. under a spell held in or as if in a spell
  1. (tr) rare to place under a spell

Word Origin

Old English spell speech; related to Old Norse spjall tale, Gothic spill, Old High German spel


  1. an indeterminate, usually short, period of timea spell of cold weather
  2. a period or tour of duty after which one person or group relieves another
  3. Scot, Australian and NZ a period or interval of rest
  1. (tr) to take over from (a person) for an interval of time; relieve temporarily
  2. spell a paddock NZ to give a field a rest period by letting it lie fallow

Word Origin

Old English spelian to take the place of, of obscure origin
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

Word Origin and History for spell


"name the letters of," Old English spellian "to tell, speak," infl. by Old French espeller "declare, spell," from Frankish *spellon "to tell;" both Old English and Frankish from Proto-Germanic *spellan (cf. Old High German spellon "to tell," Old Norse spjalla, Gothic spillon "to talk, tell"), from PIE *spel- "to say aloud, recite." Related: Spelled; spelling.

Meaning "write or say the letters of a word" is c.1400, from notion of "read letter by letter, read with difficulty" (c.1300). Spell out "explain step-by-step" is first recorded 1940, American English. Spelling bee is from 1878 (earlier simply spelling, 1860).


"incantation, charm," Old English spell "story, speech," from Proto-Germanic *spellan (cf. Old Norse spjall, Old High German spel, Gothic spill "report, discourse, tale;" German Beispiel "example;" see spell (v.1)). Meaning "set of words with magical powers, incantation, charm" first recorded 1570s.

The term 'spell' is generally used for magical procedures which cause harm, or force people to do something against their will -- unlike charms for healing, protection, etc. ["Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore"]


"work in place of (another)," Old English spelian "to take the place of," related to gespelia "substitute," of uncertain origin. Perhaps related to spilian "to play" (see spiel). Related: Spelled; spelling. The noun meaning "indefinite period of time" first recorded 1706.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with spell


In addition to the idiom beginning with spell

also see:

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