adjective sub·tle \ˈsə-təl\

: hard to notice or see : not obvious

: clever and indirect : not showing your real purpose

: having or showing skill at recognizing and understanding things that are not obvious

sub·tler \ˈsət-lər, ˈsə-təl-ər\ sub·tlest \ˈsət-ləst, ˈsə-təl-əst\

Full Definition of SUBTLE

a :  delicate, elusive <a subtle fragrance>
b :  difficult to understand or perceive :  obscure <subtle differences in sound>
a :  perceptive, refined <a writer's sharp and subtle moral sense>
b :  having or marked by keen insight and ability to penetrate deeply and thoroughly <a subtle scholar>
a :  highly skillful :  expert <a subtle craftsman>
b :  cunningly made or contrived :  ingenious
:  artful, crafty <a subtle rogue>
:  operating insidiously <subtle poisons>
sub·tle·ness \ˈsə-təl-nəs\ noun
sub·tly \ˈsət-lē, ˈsə-təl-(l)ē\ adverb

Examples of SUBTLE

  1. a subtle difference in meaning between the words
  2. Racial discrimination still exists, only now it's subtler than it once was.
  3. When it comes to giving criticism, sometimes it's best to take a subtle approach.
  4. He didn't seem to understand my subtle hints.
  5. It was her subtle way of telling me to mind my own business.
  6. She has a subtle mind.
  7. Although artists and patrons in Venice still sought images of ideal figures, they insisted that this imagery be rooted in a more subtle and insightful interpretation of human life and character. —Andrew Butterfield, New York Review of Books, 16 July 2009

Origin of SUBTLE

Middle English sotil, subtile, from Anglo-French, from Latin subtilis, literally, finely textured, from sub- + tela cloth on a loom; akin to Latin texere to weave — more at technical
First Known Use: 14th century

Rhymes with SUBTLE

SUBTLE Defined for Kids


adjective sub·tle \ˈsə-təl\
sub·tler \ˈsət-lər\sub·tlest \ˈsət-ləst\

Definition of SUBTLE for Kids

:  difficult to perceive <There was a subtle change in Miss Lavendar's voice. — Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea>
:  shrewd, keen <subtle questions>
:  delicate 1 <a subtle fragrance>
sub·tly \ˈsət-lē\ adverb


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