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

Keep scrolling for more

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.
See More

Recent Examples on the Web

Since Trump is not very subtle, his team even explicitly told a group of Washington Post reporters that the infrastructure dangle is a trap designed to weaken Democrats’ political position. Matthew Yglesias, Vox, "House Democrats must resist Trump’s infrastructure trap," 9 Nov. 2018 The placement of the Hot Wheels logo throughout the vehicle is subtle, but car fans of all ages take notice. Timothy Dahl, Popular Mechanics, "We Drive the Hot Wheels Chevy Camaro SS," 12 Oct. 2018 Every scent tester agreed that this was pleasant, subtle, but still had great fall vibes. Danielle Tullo, House Beautiful, "The 10 Most Popular Pumpkin Candles, Ranked," 9 Oct. 2018 This is an intriguing and complex, yet subtle, picture with only three people in it. John Wilmerding, WSJ, "A Winning Group of Cheaters," 28 Sep. 2018 The Orphan Black star accessorized her lime green and black Christian Siriano jumpsuit with a subtle, but meaningful Planned Parenthood pin. Erica Gonzales, Harper's BAZAAR, "The Most Political Moments at the 2018 Emmy Awards," 18 Sep. 2018 On Lively’s eyes was a subtle, natural look created by light neutrals (pinks and beiges) of a powdery texture from Dior 5 Couleurs Eyeshadow in 537. Jesa Marie Calaor, Allure, "How to Get Blake Lively's Hair and Makeup From A Simple Favor," 14 Sep. 2018 His fingerprint can be spotted on the subtle (but effective) music as well as the outdoor scenes that give the show a sense of place. Eric Berger, Ars Technica, "The First: Hulu’s new series about a human mission to Mars feels pretty real," 5 Sep. 2018 Fedak and the crew pulled up by the seal in a bright red, 7,000-ton ship that rumbled the ground—not exactly subtle. Kasha Patel, Smithsonian, "How Data-Gathering Seals Help Scientists Measure the Melting Antarctic," 13 July 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.

See More

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

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about subtle

Dictionary Entries near subtle

subtilty

subtitle

subtitular

subtle

subtlety

subtone

subtonic

Statistics for subtle

Last Updated

13 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for subtle

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

See more words from the same century

Keep scrolling for more

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

Keep scrolling for more

Comments on subtle

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

WORD OF THE DAY

to clear from alleged fault or guilt

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Difficult Vocab Quiz

  • the-education-of-achilles-eugne-delacroix
  • Which is a synonym of discomfit?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!

TAKE THE QUIZ
Word Winder's CrossWinder

Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.

TAKE THE QUIZ

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!