subtle

adjective

sub·​tle ˈsə-tᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio)
subtler ˈsət-lər How to pronounce subtle (audio)
ˈsə-tᵊl-ər
; subtlest ˈsət-ləst How to pronounce subtle (audio)
ˈsə-tᵊl-əst
1
a
: delicate, elusive
a subtle fragrance
His eyes had a peculiar, subtle ray in them—not a gleam.Theodore Dreiser
The peppers also have a pleasant hint of sweetness, which gives dishes featuring them a subtle richness.Kim Marcus
… flowering kale is the chic caterer's dream, its subtle hues and fluffy forms ideal for filling out table displays …Elizabeth Schneider
b
: difficult to understand or perceive : obscure sense 1c
a subtle truth
a subtle change
subtle differences in sound
The drafters of the bill had made a subtle but important error …Jonathan Mahler
Unlike wolves, who seem in some subtle way to choose their prey for pursuit, cougars wait in hiding to make a short rush at any animal that happens by.Chris Bolgiano
Many grammarians have made subtle distinctions between these two words …Charles Einstein
c
: clever and indirect : disguised in purpose
She turned to me and began asking questions, ignoring my subtle hints that I was busy.Clay Smith
The negative labels [given to young people] are not-so-subtle propaganda.David Lipsky et al.
2
: having or involving keen perception or insight
a subtle scholar
the writer's subtle ear for dialogue
a subtle understanding of human nature
The success of many of the new vegetarian dishes depends on the heightened culinary intelligence, subtle sense of taste, and well-honed cooking skills that the current generation of hobby chefs has developed over the past decade.Jinx Morgan
3
a
: highly skillful : expert
a subtle craftsman
The discoveries do not mean that hackers have a free ride into a Web developer's system … . Even in the case of the most serious flaw, it would take a subtle hacker to exploit it …Jeremy Carl
b
: cunningly made or contrived : ingenious
… a remarkably subtle portrayal of a nation overtaken by an Orwellian nightmare.Joan Podhoretz
4
: artful, crafty
This little knot of subtle schemers will control the convention, and, through it, dictate to the party.Nathaniel Hawthorne
… they will all imagine you are engaged in a subtle plan … to cheat them.Dennis Joseph Enright
5
: operating insidiously
subtle poisons
Ah, shallow as it is, yet, how subtle a thing is suspicion, which at times can invade the humanest of hearts and wisest of heads.Herman Melville
subtleness noun
subtly
ˈsət-lē How to pronounce subtle (audio)
ˈsə-tᵊl-(l)ē
adverb

Did you know?

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.
Recent Examples on the Web Due to this, observers may miss the subtle changes as the sun slowly disappears and day becomes night. Haadiza Ogwude, The Enquirer, 3 Apr. 2024 The scent permeates the cabin in subtle ways, but it’s also used in its lounges and ticket counters. Rachel Dube, Robb Report, 3 Apr. 2024 See all Example Sentences for subtle 

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

Word History

Etymology

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, in the meaning defined at sense 4

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

Dictionary Entries Near subtle

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subtle. Accessed 14 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

subtle

adjective
sub·​tle ˈsət-ᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio)
subtler ˈsət-lər How to pronounce subtle (audio)
-ᵊl-ər
; subtlest ˈsət-ləst How to pronounce subtle (audio)
-ᵊl-əst
1
a
: delicate sense 1, elusive
a subtle fragrance
b
: difficult to understand or distinguish
subtle differences in vowel sounds
2
: marked by a keen ability to understand
a subtle mind
3
: sly sense 1a, crafty
subtle flattery
4
: working slowly but effectively
a subtle poison
subtleness noun
subtly
ˈsət-lē How to pronounce subtle (audio)
ˈsət-ᵊl-(l)ē
adverb
Etymology

Middle English sotil, subtile "delicate," from early French sotil (same meaning), from Latin subtilis "delicate," literally, "finely woven," from sub "under, close to" and tela "fabric woven on a loom"

More from Merriam-Webster on subtle

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