nu·​ance ˈnü-ˌän(t)s How to pronounce nuance (audio)
: a subtle distinction or variation
Nuances of flavor and fragrance cannot be described accurately …Scott Seegers
… these terms have certain nuances of meaning …Ben F. Nelms
: a subtle quality : nicety
… the nuances of an individual's voice …Michael Swaine
: sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value)
… a performance of remarkable pliability and nuance.Irvine Kolodin

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The history of nuance starts in Latin with the noun nūbēs, meaning "cloud." Nūbēs floated into Middle French as nue, also meaning “cloud,” and nue gave rise to nuer, meaning “to make shades of color.” Nuer in turn produced nuance, which in Middle French meant “shade of color.” English borrowed nuance from French, with the meaning “a subtle distinction or variation,” in the late 18th century. That use persists today. Additionally, nuance is sometimes used in a specific musical sense, designating a subtle, expressive variation in a musical performance (such as in tempo, dynamic intensity, or timbre) that is not indicated in the score.

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Nuance: So Subtle You Might Miss It

Although nuance is defined as "a subtle distinction or variation," the adjective subtle is frequently seen modifying the noun:

Ms. Fyfield is remarkably thorough in her psychological profiles, giving subtle nuances to characters who are mere passers-by in this psychodrama.
Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review, 27 Aug. 1989

Still, the beloved diva sustained exquisite control of her vast vocal resources, enriching line after line with gleaming tone and subtle nuance.
Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times, 15 Nov. 2016

Since the definition of nuance already connotes subtlety—we don't speak of blatant or obvious nuances—some might regard the use of subtle as a modifier here to be redundant. But the fact of its frequent use is an indication that the connotation of subtlety in nuance might itself be too subtle to be picked up by many English speakers.

Examples of nuance in a Sentence

Between the lines of lexicographical nuance and quotation, Johnson was paying old debts and seeking out wisdom about himself and his adopted city, as well as compiling perhaps the greatest commonplace book in the history of mankind. Andrew O'Hagan, New York Review, 27 Apr. 2006
In every silky statement from General Musharraf about the need for a short—in other words: limited—war, and in every nuance of the Pakistani official posture, I was sure I detected the local version of Schadenfreude. Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, January 2002
To La Farge, eccentricity meant convention; a mind really eccentric never betrayed it. True eccentricity was a tone—a shade—a nuance—and the finer the tone, the truer the eccentricity. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
He listened to the subtle nuances in the song. a poem of little depth and nuance
Recent Examples on the Web And as Meyer notes, journalists including my colleague Alex wrote about the study with nuance, explaining that climate change alone doesn’t determine fire behavior — a reality that undermines Brown’s criticisms of the mainstream media’s climate coverage. Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times, 12 Sep. 2023 And its shade nuances aren’t lost on other people of color who toe the line between medium deep and deep, either, even earning a Best in Black Beauty award from Essence. Tiffany Dodson, Harper's BAZAAR, 7 Sep. 2023 And DuVernay’s screenplay limply addresses key criticisms of Wilkerson’s book, namely how nuance is lost when comparing Jewish extermination, Black enslavement and Dalit subordination in broad strokes. Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter, 6 Sep. 2023 But to win big — as in, emerging-victorious-at-Flushing-Meadows big — nuance is critical. Kurt Streeter, New York Times, 6 Sep. 2023 Most of us have learned to tolerate and even enjoy off-putting but good-hearted folks of all genders and ages who struggle with nuance and volume control because of neurodivergence, hearing loss, cultural conditioning or family dynamic. Karla L. Miller, Washington Post, 31 Aug. 2023 But Luffy is such a fundamentally broad and silly character in this telling that all these attempts at nuance and poignancy seem utterly at odds with the material, and with the nature of the main character. Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone, 31 Aug. 2023 More experienced cooks and chefs will be able to notice the nuances between similar sets like the D3 and the D5, but the average cook likely won't be able to. Nicole Papantoniou, Good Housekeeping, 31 Aug. 2023 Both projects center underrepresented identities and explore the nuances of womanhood through flawed, relatable and hilarious characters. Jaden Thompson, Variety, 25 Aug. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'nuance.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from French, "shade of a color, subtle distinction," going back to Middle French, "shade of a color," from nuer "to shade (colors) by gradual transition, blend, match" (going back to Middle French, derivative of nué "shaded from one color to another or from darker to lighter") + -ance -ance; nué from nu "cloud" (going back to Latin nūbēs) + -é, suffix of appurtenance and resemblance, going back to Latin -ātus -ate entry 3; nūbēs perhaps going back to Indo-European *(s)neu̯dh- or *(s)nou̯dh-, whence also Welsh nudd "mist, haze"

Note: The association of a word for "cloud" with gradation of color apparently comes from the perception that the color of an object is weakened when mist passes over it. — The presumed Indo-European *(s)neu̯dh- has also been compared with Avestan snaoδa- "clouds" (if this is the correct meaning), snaoδəṇt- "weeping," and Balochi nod "cloud." If Latin obnūbere "to veil, cover (usually the head)" is relevant, the original meaning of the etymon may have been "covering."

First Known Use

1781, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of nuance was in 1781


Dictionary Entries Near nuance

Cite this Entry

“Nuance.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


nu·​ance ˈn(y)ü-ˌän(t)s How to pronounce nuance (audio)
: a slight shade or degree of difference (as in color, tone, or meaning)
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