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 \

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 subtle (audio) \ noun
subtly \ ˈsət-​lē How to pronounce subtle (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 This line of sensory cells, which runs from head to tail along a fish’s sides, detects subtle changes in water pressure, which could complement its vision to help keep it synchronized with its comrades as the school moves about. Matt Simon, Wired, "These Adorable Fish Robots Form Schools Like the Real Thing," 13 Jan. 2021 Some rooms are just built better than others—with stellar floor plans that lend themselves to wonderful flow, but there are also subtle changes in furniture placement that can make an existing room that much better. Hadley Mendelsohn, House Beautiful, "How to Create the Perfect Furniture Layout," 17 Dec. 2020 Manager David Ross stuck with those core players in their normal spots in the lineup for at least a month before making subtle changes that could not correct a franchise-worst .210 batting average at Wrigley Field and a .669 OPS. Mark Gonzales, chicagotribune.com, "Chicago Cubs — and new boss Jed Hoyer — will try to address needs during this week’s virtual winter meetings amid much uncertainty about the 2021 season," 6 Dec. 2020 Crystal Dickinson, who plays Mason, sits answering in a comfortable-looking living room, with a child behind her, dawdling on the couch—a subtle but powerful reminder of the trial’s high stakes. Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker, "Reënacting the Trial of a Black Woman Convicted of Voter Fraud," 2 Nov. 2020 Finding a way to catch dementia patients earlier requires identifying subtle changes in a person’s cognitive function over time. Nicolás Rivero, Quartz, "IBM scientists hope to detect early signs of dementia using AI," 22 Oct. 2020 Most planet-hunting methods rely on observing subtle changes in a star’s light to discern any orbiting companions. Nola Taylor Redd, Scientific American, "Rogue Rocky Planet Found Adrift in the Milky Way," 19 Oct. 2020 Jenner often seems like the only one in the family who makes only subtle changes to her look. Angela Trakoshis, Allure, "Kendall Jenner Posted a Selfie to Prove How Long Her Hair's Grown," 15 Oct. 2020 That served as a none-too-subtle reminder for Hendriks and his fellow pitchers ahead of Tuesday’s Game 2. Ron Kroichick, SFChronicle.com, "A’s Liam Hendriks on Home Run Derby: ‘I’m kind of a flyball pitcher, so that sucks’," 6 Oct. 2020

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

25 Jan 2021

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subtle. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.

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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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Comments on subtle

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