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

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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.
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Recent Examples on the Web

But the ways in which wildlife suffer at our hands can be far subtler. Katherine J. Wu, Smithsonian, "How Humans Created the Ultimate Superpests," 9 July 2018 Meanwhile, as one of the outer (and more distant) planets, Neptune's effects on our lives are much subtler — and of a far more mysterious nature., "The Moon Wants You To Pay Attention To Your Dreams On Wednesday Night," 2 July 2018 The soft, muted colors still feel fun and special, but are subtle enough to wear everyday and feel confident in. Nastassia Brückin, Teen Vogue, "Pastel Sneakers Are the Summer Trend You'll Want to Wear All Season Long," 25 May 2018 Miller’s sky-blue frock was dotted in a micro floral print that was subtle enough to keep it from feeling twee. Maria Ward, Vogue, "Stuck in the City for Memorial Day? Sienna Miller Has Staycation Style Inspiration," 25 May 2018 But these concessions may have been too subtle for North Korea, which had clearly taken note of how U.S. officials were portraying the meeting in media appearances. Adam Taylor, Washington Post, "The bad timing of Trump’s North Korea letter," 24 May 2018 This episode isn’t subtle about the fact that Bill is probably going to die. Caroline Framke, Vox, "Killing Eve’s funny, frightening third episode shows why it’s the best TV surprise of the year," 29 Apr. 2018 The slightly salty feta marries perfectly with the subtle earthy flavors of asparagus and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil scented with lemon and fresh herbs. Time, "Weekend Recipe: An Asparagus Salad That Will Wow Dinner Guests," 26 Apr. 2018 Everything about the experience was enjoyably subtle. Martine Thompson, Bon Appetit, "This CBD Tincture Makes Me Super Productive… In a Chill Way," 12 Apr. 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.

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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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Last Updated

18 Sep 2018

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Time Traveler for subtle

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

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More Definitions for subtle



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


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

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Comments on subtle

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