Definition of subtle
subtlerplay \ˈsət-lər, ˈsə-təl-ər\;
subtlestplay \ˈsət-ləst, ˈsə-təl-əst\
5 : operating insidiously <subtle poisons>
subtlenessplay \ˈsə-təl-nəs\ noun
subtlyplay \ˈsət-lē, ˈsə-təl-(l)ē\ adverb
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.
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.
Origin and Etymology of 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
First Known Use: 14th century
SUBTLE Defined for English Language Learners
Definition of subtle for English Language Learners
: 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 Defined for Kids
Definition of subtle for Students
Seen and Heard
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