subtle

adjective
sub·​tle | \ ˈsə-tᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio) \
subtler\ ˈsət-​lər How to pronounce subtler (audio) , ˈsə-​tᵊl-​ər \; subtlest\ ˈsət-​ləst How to pronounce subtlest (audio) , 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 How to pronounce subtleness (audio) \ noun
subtly \ ˈsət-​lē How to pronounce subtly (audio) , 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 changes are subtle, but make the car look sleeker and smoother than before. Peter Valdes-dapena, CNN, "Jaguar's sporty F-Type gets a sleek new look," 3 Dec. 2019 When Washington Square Park reopens on Wednesday in North Beach, the changes on view will be subtle. John King, SFChronicle.com, "Washington Square Park is back — with design tweaks as timeless as North Beach itself," 2 Dec. 2019 The signature of the time crystal is subtle and would be tough to measure: Certain correlations in the number of spins pointing up or down will oscillate in time, even though the system remains unperturbed in its least energetic state. Adrian Cho, Science | AAAS, "Back to the future: The original time crystal makes a comeback," 27 Nov. 2019 The physical change to the kettles is subtle — a tag containing microchip has been added to the Salvation Army sign attached to each red kettle stand. Kathleen Foody, The Denver Post, "No cash? Salvation Army now accepting mobile donations," 27 Nov. 2019 In India the obstacles to internal migration are more subtle. The Economist, "Domestic migrationWhy people should leave the countryside," 14 Nov. 2019 The tea flavor is rather subtle so, depending on your tastes, either make a stronger brew or substitute your favorite tea for the Earl Grey. Kim Sunée, Anchorage Daily News, "Make a date with this Earl Grey-infused quick bread," 7 Nov. 2019 Other carriers are more subtle about their disclosures. Wired, "A $60 Million Fine Won't Stop AT&T From Throttling “Unlimited” Data Plans," 5 Nov. 2019 Telescopes and binoculars help to bring out these colors, which can be quite subtle so pay attention when observing. Arnold Pearlstein, sun-sentinel.com, "The Stars This Week: Nov. 3 - 9," 3 Nov. 2019

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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Time Traveler for subtle

Time Traveler

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

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Statistics for subtle

Last Updated

11 Dec 2019

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subtle. Accessed 11 December 2019.

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More Definitions for subtle

subtle

adjective
How to pronounce subtle (audio)

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 How to pronounce subtle (audio) \
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

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for subtle

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with 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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