adjective sub·tle \ ˈsə-tᵊl \
|Updated on: 7 Aug 2018

Definition of subtle

subtler play \ˈsət-lər, ˈsə-tᵊl-ər\; subtlest play \ˈsət-ləst, ˈsə-tᵊl-əst\
1 a : delicate, elusive
  • a subtle fragrance
b : difficult to understand or perceive : obscure
  • subtle differences in sound
2 a : 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
3 a : highly skillful : expert
  • a subtle craftsman
b : cunningly made or contrived : ingenious
4 : artful, crafty
  • a subtle rogue
5 : operating insidiously
  • subtle poisons


play \ˈsə-tᵊl-nəs\ noun


play \ˈsət-lē, ˈsə-tᵊl-(l)ē\ adverb

Examples of subtle in a Sentence

  1. 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 ButterfieldNew York Review of Books16 July 2009
  2. 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 ShimizuSaveurMay 2008
  3. 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 SilbermanWiredMay 2003
  4. a subtle difference in meaning between the words

  5. Racial discrimination still exists, only now it's subtler than it once was.

  6. When it comes to giving criticism, sometimes it's best to take a subtle approach.

  7. He didn't seem to understand my subtle hints.

  8. It was her subtle way of telling me to mind my own business.

  9. She has a subtle mind.

Recent Examples of subtle from the Web

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.

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

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


adjective sub·tle \ ˈsə-tᵊl \

Definition of subtle for Students

subtler \ˈsət-lər\; subtlest \ˈsət-ləst\
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 1
  • a subtle fragrance


\ˈsət-lē\ adverb

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