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

Watching the series felt like receiving a diagnosis for a subtle but devastating malady, one that’s hard for those not afflicted to appreciate, or even believe. Sophia Moskalenko, Vox, "I was a child of Chernobyl," 2 July 2019 The blue and red design, which is now synonymous with PSG, was crafted to wonderful effect, only to be made even better by the Opel sponsorship which managed to appear gratuitous and subtle all at the same time. SI.com, "50 Greatest Football Shirts of All Time," 28 June 2019 The gradient texture mimics your natural nail color for a look that's subtle and polished. Kelsey Stiegman, Seventeen, "25 Homecoming Nail Ideas That'll Help You Stand Out," 25 June 2019 That tendency doesn’t always take the form of blatant xenophobia, instead surfacing in ways that are subtler and more difficult to call out. Aamina Khan, Teen Vogue, "Criticism of BTS Is Often Just Xenophobia in Disguise," 24 June 2019 The look, by Electric Iris of Boston, is subtle and comfortable, enhanced by 100 pieces of artwork by artists such as Leonard Baskin. Pamela Wright, BostonGlobe.com, "Briar Barn Inn in Rowley: A cute new inn in an unlikely place," 18 June 2019 We’re told in ways both overt and subtle that emotional labor is our birthright. Gemma Hartley, Quartz, "This is the real reason women are “control freaks”," 18 June 2019 For a memorable warm weather aesthetic, opt for a cocktail of spirited and subtle. Calin Van Paris, Vogue, "Gigi Hadid Masters the Art of Summer Beauty at Heron Preston," 18 June 2019 Is there any subtle and graceful way to deter these shutterbugs? Amy Dickinson, The Denver Post, "Ask Amy: Anxious bridesmaid feels she ruined a wedding," 15 June 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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Learn More about subtle

Dictionary Entries near subtle

subtilty

subtitle

subtitular

subtle

subtlety

subtone

subtonic

Statistics for subtle

Last Updated

10 Jul 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for subtle

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

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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

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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

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