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

The resulting wall treatment creates an ever-so-subtle nod to bubbles foaming from a bath, a motif the designer repeated with a globe pendant and sconces from Visual Comfort. Hadley Keller, House Beautiful, "Creative Tile Turns a Scary '90s Bathroom Into a Fresh, Fun Space," 27 Feb. 2019 The mannequin is a perfect specimen, and a not-so-subtle cue to the trainees. Joe Pappalardo, Popular Mechanics, "What Happened When I Trained With Air Force Human Performance Specialists," 12 Feb. 2019 To Get Ready for Everyone Asking About Your Love Life: Why Oh Why For single people, Thanksgiving can be a nightmare of prying questions and not-so-subtle scolding looks. Vogue, "15 Great Podcasts for Your Holiday Travel This Year," 20 Nov. 2018 In a statement this week, the former Obama administration Labor Department official used his disavowal of his grandfather to take a not-so-subtle dig at his opponent. Adam Shaw, Fox News, "Dem running against indicted Rep. Hunter rises in race, disavows Munich terrorist grandfather," 24 Aug. 2018 Looking at the catchphrases featured on the stamps, some have wondered if the set is, in fact, a subtle tribute to Brexit. The Economist, "Are these Dad’s Army stamps inspired by Brexit?," 14 June 2018 This is a not-so-subtle way of reminding any reader that this is an industry issue, not an Uber issue. Jessi Hempel, WIRED, "Uber Is Harnessing the Sexual Harassment Crisis to Rebuild Its Brand," 15 May 2018 On that note, Page kept certain gazes, like Hansen’s, more subtle, slicking on jet-black liner and layering mascara for voluminous fringe. Lauren Valenti, Vogue, "Supermodel Patti Hansen Just Had an Ageless Beauty Moment at Michael Kors," 13 Feb. 2019 Equally subtle: chef J.P. Amateau’s small tweaks to Jean Rue’s blander, decades-old recipes. Rico Gagliano, WSJ, "This Iconic Hollywood Restaurant Lets You Travel Back in Time," 13 Feb. 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

6 Mar 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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