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 outfits appear to be a not-so-subtle jab at President Trump. John Gage, Washington Examiner, "House Democratic women wearing suffragette white at Trump State of the Union," 4 Feb. 2020 Kuraly became too comfortable of late, by Cassidy’s eye, and the big center’s night off was a not-so-subtle reminder that there are no job guarantees. Kevin Paul Dupont, BostonGlobe.com, "Anton Blidh makes impression blocking shots," 2 Feb. 2020 As an example of the subtle, bureaucratic approach to modern voter suppression highlighted by Derfner, Groh-Wargo cited provisional ballots. Andrew Cockburn, Harper's magazine, "Election Bias," 6 Jan. 2020 Which is why Kelly’s not-so-subtle puffs of defiance leading up to and immediately following No. Eric Hansen, Indianapolis Star, "Analysis: Will Brian Kelly's next step match up with his growing aspirations for Notre Dame?," 30 Dec. 2019 The comedian took a subtler approach playing a Chinese-American 20-something who confronts her family’s customs when journeying home to say goodbye to her beloved grandmother. Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY, "7 stars who blew us away doing something entirely new in 2019," 28 Nov. 2019 When these traits are pronounced enough, a human clinician might pick up on them—but AI algorithms, Nasrallah says, could be trained to flag signals and patterns too subtle for humans to detect. Jamie Ducharme, Time, "Artificial Intelligence Could Help Solve America's Impending Mental Health Crisis," 20 Nov. 2019 The latter not only evokes extremely luxe vibes but offers a subtle yet still rich approach to holiday style. Dominique Hobdy, Essence, "Deliver Major Luxe Vibes This Season With Sultry Velvet Pieces," 12 Nov. 2019 Others prefer a more subtle approach, hardly dabbling in the traditional red-and-green shades of the season, preferring hints of sparkle over in-your-face festiveness. Allure, "45 Festive Christmas Nail Ideas to Get You in the Holiday Spirit," 9 Nov. 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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Time Traveler for subtle

Time Traveler

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

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Statistics for subtle

Last Updated

20 Feb 2020

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subtly. Accessed 24 Feb. 2020.

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More Definitions for subtle

subtle

adjective
How to pronounce subtle (audio)

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

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for subtle

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with subtle

Spanish Central: Translation of subtle

Nglish: Translation of subtle for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of subtle for Arabic Speakers

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