subtle

adjective
sub·​tle | \ ˈsə-tᵊl \
subtler\ ˈsət-​lər , ˈsə-​tᵊl-​ər \; subtlest\ ˈsət-​ləst , ˈsə-​tᵊl-​əst \

Definition of subtle

1a : delicate, elusive a subtle fragrance
b : difficult to understand or perceive : obscure subtle differences in sound
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
3a : highly skillful : expert a subtle craftsman
b : cunningly made or contrived : ingenious
4 : artful, crafty a subtle rogue
5 : operating insidiously subtle poisons

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Other Words from subtle

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

Why is there a "b" in subtle?

If you know this word by sight, you might not know how to say it. And if you know it in conversation you might not know how to spell it.

For those of you in the first camp, we'll give you a hint: that "b" is subtle. So subtle, in fact, as to not be heard at all. It's a silent "b," like the "b" in thumb and debt. The word actually rhymes with shuttle.

And for those in the second camp: this is the word that sounds like it should be spelled "suttle."

So what is that pesky "b" doing there anyway? Is that sub at the beginning of the word related to the sub in submarine and subterranean?

Yes, it is. Subtle comes ultimately from a Latin pair: the prefix sub-, meaning "under," and tela, meaning "web." The two were joined in Latin subtilis, meaning "finely woven." The word was literal; it was originally a weaving term. But over time subtilis developed figurative uses, and was applied in many cases in which the word fine would work as well: to describe details, distinctions, and tastes, among other things.

When subtle came to first be used in Middle English its meaning was very much in this same lineage. It meant "perceptive, refined," and was used to describe people known for their clear thinking—such as philosophers—and things, such as analysis or reasoning, that demonstrated such thinking.

One more thing about the spelling of subtle: like many words that have been in the language for centuries, this one took numerous forms before settling into its current spelling. Many of the forms didn't include the "b" at all—and it's believed that the "b" was probably never pronounced in English. The "b" spellings that were used were a nod to the Latin subtilis. And much to the chagrin of those in favor of phonetic spellings today, one of them came out on top.

Examples of subtle in a Sentence

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 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 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 a subtle difference in meaning between the words Racial discrimination still exists, only now it's subtler than it once was. When it comes to giving criticism, sometimes it's best to take a subtle approach. He didn't seem to understand my subtle hints. It was her subtle way of telling me to mind my own business. She has a subtle mind.
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Recent Examples on the Web

The brand offers a variety of gorgeous, colorful prints; this one in particular features a reversible watercolor design on the front with a more subtle botanical print on the back. Lexie Sachs, Good Housekeeping, "6 Best Duvet Covers, According to Textile Experts," 21 Dec. 2018 Meanwhile, people are getting information about far more subtle genetic influences anyway. Diana Gitig, Ars Technica, "Genetic information as self-fulfilling prophecy," 17 Dec. 2018 Hyaluronic acid injections like Restylane Silk, Juvederm, or the more subtle Volbella can make the lips more defined—and therefore a little younger-looking—without changing the size dramatically. Jenna Rosenstein, Harper's BAZAAR, "The Anti-Aging Guide for Lips," 6 Nov. 2018 In the past, she's gravitated toward subtler shades and blues as a wedding guest. Kayleigh Roberts, Marie Claire, "Kate Middleton Has Worn Her Alexander McQueen Gown From Eugenie's Wedding Before," 13 Oct. 2018 Mix and match the pieces with solids for a more subtle effect. Caitlin King, The Seattle Times, "5 office essentials for a more fashionable fall," 1 Oct. 2018 Coordinating Couple Despite Kendall’s subtle shade, the couple showed no signs of slowing down the romance. Alexia Fernandez, PEOPLE.com, "Scott Disick & Sofia Richie's Sudden Split: Looking Back at Their 1-Year Romance," 4 June 2018 Some prefer to go all out like on The Great Christmas Light Fight, while others prefer a more subtle, natural, or even edible approach. Taylor Mead, House Beautiful, "Actress Amy Smart Reveals How She Decorates Her Home For The Holidays With Husband Carter Oosterhouse," 7 Dec. 2018 The exposure of Unit 61398 may also have simply reinforced for Chinese leaders the wisdom of pursuing a more subtle approach. Mara Hvistendahl, WSJ, "‘Dawn of the Code War’ Review: The Cyber Threat Reconsidered," 3 Dec. 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'subtle.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of subtle

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for 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

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Dictionary Entries near subtle

subtilty

subtitle

subtitular

subtle

subtlety

subtone

subtonic

Statistics for subtle

Last Updated

9 Jan 2019

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Time Traveler for subtle

The first known use of subtle was in the 14th century

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More Definitions for subtle

subtle

adjective

English Language Learners 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

subtle

adjective
sub·​tle | \ ˈsə-tᵊl \
subtler\ ˈsət-​lər \; subtlest\ ˈsət-​ləst \

Kids Definition of subtle

1 : difficult to perceive There was a subtle change in Miss Lavendar's voice.— Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
2 : shrewd, keen subtle questions
3 : delicate sense 1 a subtle fragrance

Other Words from subtle

subtly \ ˈsət-​lē \ adverb

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More from Merriam-Webster on subtle

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with subtle

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for subtle

Spanish Central: Translation of subtle

Nglish: Translation of subtle for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of subtle for Arabic Speakers

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