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

Keep scrolling for more

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.
See More

Recent Examples on the Web

But the Russian menace remains, and is probably dwarfed by a far more subtle campaign of espionage by a great power of far greater capacity in China. Hugh Hewitt, Twin Cities, "Hugh Hewitt: America’s enemies are on notice about this president," 5 June 2019 The most glaring was the murder of her BFF, Missandei, but a more subtle moment might have had an even more damning effect, psychologically. Kayleigh Roberts, Marie Claire, "Why Did Jon Snow Have to Kill Daenerys in the 'Game of Thrones' Finale?," 20 May 2019 The goal is something more subtle, just like Gomez herself. Steff Yotka, Vogue, "“I'm in the Stage of Life Where I Love to Adventure”—Selena Gomez Reveals Her Travel-Inspired Puma Collaboration," 15 May 2019 As so much of the home overlooks the pool and lounge area out back, having something more subtle to balance the color on the inside makes sense. Nikhita Mahtani, House Beautiful, "This Bold, Colorful Home is Extra in All the Best Ways," 30 Apr. 2019 There were some pretty obvious hints and some more subtle ones, but there were still so many fun goodies to look out for. Tamara Fuentes, Seventeen, "All the Fun Easter Eggs in "Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists" Episode 2," 28 Mar. 2019 Unlike Metro, Fluent includes more subtle design changes with a focus on animations and blur effects. Tom Warren, The Verge, "Microsoft’s designers are now working together on the future of Windows, Office, and Surface," 5 Dec. 2018 With subtle arrangements, a striking piano accompaniment and his trademark gentle vocals, the song serves as a humble return involving a journal of hopeful memories. Billboard Staff, Billboard, "Viva Friday: Listen to the Best New Latin Music This Week By Ozuna & Tory Lanez, Shakira & Maluma and More," 8 June 2018 However, something surprising, subtler and more impactful occurred. Janelle Okwodu, Vogue, "Brie Larson, Naomi Campbell, Gigi Hadid, and More of the Week’s Best Dressed Stars," 20 May 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.

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

12 Jun 2019

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 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

Keep scrolling for more

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

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

behavior toward others

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Words for Summer: A Quiz

  • a closeup of a sunflower
  • Which of the following words means “of or relating to summer”?
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

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!