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adjective, sub·tle \ˈsə-təl\

Simple Definition of subtle

  • : 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

Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary

Full Definition of subtle

subtler play \ˈsət-lər, ˈsə-təl-ər\ subtlest play \ˈsət-ləst, ˈsə-təl-əst\

  1. 1a :  delicate, elusive <a subtle fragrance>b :  difficult to understand or perceive :  obscure <subtle differences in sound>

  2. 2a :  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>

  3. 3a :  highly skillful :  expert <a subtle craftsman>b :  cunningly made or contrived :  ingenious

  4. 4 :  artful, crafty <a subtle rogue>

  5. 5 :  operating insidiously <subtle poisons>

subtleness play \ˈsə-təl-nəs\ noun
subtly play \ˈsət-lē, ˈsə-təl-(l)ē\ adverb

Examples of subtle in a sentence

  1. 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

  2. These days, some of the most exciting cooking with brown rice is taking place in Japan, where purveyors are beginning to embrace the subtle variations that can be achieved through custom-milling and cooks are repurposing traditional techniques and dishes to accommodate the food's flavors and textures. —Karen Shimizu, Saveur, May 2008

  3. The language of the face communicates maximum information through the subtlest inflections. The interfaces of our souls are designed to be read in a heartbeat. —Steve Silberman, Wired, May 2003

  4. a subtle difference in meaning between the words

  5. Racial discrimination still exists, only now it's subtler than it once was.

  6. When it comes to giving criticism, sometimes it's best to take a subtle approach.

  7. He didn't seem to understand my subtle hints.

  8. It was her subtle way of telling me to mind my own business.

  9. She has a subtle mind.

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\

Definition of subtle for Students

subtler \ˈsət-lər\subtlest \ˈsət-ləst\

  1. 1 :  difficult to perceive <There was a subtle change in Miss Lavendar's voice. — Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea>

  2. 2 :  shrewd, keen <subtle questions>

  3. 3 :  delicate 1 <a subtle fragrance>

subtly \ˈsət-lē\ adverb

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up subtle? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


the range of perception or understanding

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