sub·​tle | \ ˈsə-tᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio) \
subtler\ ˈsət-​lər How to pronounce subtle (audio) , ˈsə-​tᵊl-​ər \; subtlest\ ˈsət-​ləst How to pronounce subtle (audio) , ˈsə-​tᵊl-​əst \

Essential Meaning of subtle

1 : hard to notice or see : not obvious a subtle difference in meaning between the words subtle changes/variations See More Examplesthe subtlest details Racial discrimination still exists, only now it's subtler than it once was. subtle flavorsHide
2 : clever and indirect : not showing your real purpose 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.
3 : having or showing skill at recognizing and understanding things that are not obvious : perceptive She has a subtle mind. a subtle analysis

Full Definition of subtle

1a : delicate, elusive a subtle fragrance His eyes had a peculiar, subtle ray in them—not a gleam.— Theodore Dreiser The peppers also have a pleasant hint of sweetness, which gives dishes featuring them a subtle richness.— Kim Marcus … flowering kale is the chic caterer's dream, its subtle hues and fluffy forms ideal for filling out table displays …— Elizabeth Schneider
b : difficult to understand or perceive : obscure sense 1c a subtle truth a subtle change subtle differences in sound The drafters of the bill had made a subtle but important error …— Jonathan Mahler Unlike wolves, who seem in some subtle way to choose their prey for pursuit, cougars wait in hiding to make a short rush at any animal that happens by.— Chris Bolgiano Many grammarians have made subtle distinctions between these two words …— Charles Einstein
c : clever and indirect : disguised in purpose She turned to me and began asking questions, ignoring my subtle hints that I was busy.— Clay Smith The negative labels [given to young people] are not-so-subtle propaganda.— David Lipsky et al.
2 : having or involving keen perception or insight a subtle scholar the writer's subtle ear for dialogue a subtle understanding of human nature The success of many of the new vegetarian dishes depends on the heightened culinary intelligence, subtle sense of taste, and well-honed cooking skills that the current generation of hobby chefs has developed over the past decade.— Jinx Morgan
3a : highly skillful : expert a subtle craftsman The discoveries do not mean that hackers have a free ride into a Web developer's system … . Even in the case of the most serious flaw, it would take a subtle hacker to exploit it …— Jeremy Carl
b : cunningly made or contrived : ingenious … a remarkably subtle portrayal of a nation overtaken by an Orwellian nightmare.— Joan Podhoretz
4 : artful, crafty This little knot of subtle schemers will control the convention, and, through it, dictate to the party.— Nathaniel Hawthorne … they will all imagine you are engaged in a subtle plan … to cheat them.— Dennis Joseph Enright
5 : operating insidiously subtle poisons Ah, shallow as it is, yet, how subtle a thing is suspicion, which at times can invade the humanest of hearts and wisest of heads.— Herman Melville

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Other Words from subtle

subtleness \ ˈsə-​tᵊl-​nəs How to pronounce subtle (audio) \ noun
subtly \ ˈsət-​lē How to pronounce subtle (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 That's because many of the subtle differences between understanding scientific research that is still theoretical versus that which has been tested and widely agreed upon are not well communicated to the public. Ramishah Maruf, CNN, 19 Sep. 2021 The subtle differences between one version of an icon and another can make for hours of lively discussion among watch collectors, and Zenith has kept the conversation going with its many iterations of the El Primero series. Carol Besler, Robb Report, 15 Sep. 2021 Expect to see some subtle differences in the offense. Chuck Carlton, Dallas News, 13 Sep. 2021 But for aficionados of movie theater chairs, the subtle differences — the curvature of the seatbacks, the density of the foam fillings, the angle at which the backs of the chairs are positioned — run deep. Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep. 2021 The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are based on similar messenger RNA technology, and have produced similar overall results, but there are subtle differences., 1 Sep. 2021 This means that subtle color differences are captured and can be enhanced before the image is compressed. Ken Colburn, The Arizona Republic, 24 Aug. 2021 Each set was glazed white, hand-painted and refired, which meant that even within a duo there were always subtle differences: an eye staring into the distance, a mouth slightly upturned in a half-smile. New York Times, 19 Aug. 2021 The white, umbrella-shape blooms look very similar on both plants, except for a few subtle differences. Jennifer Aldrich, Better Homes & Gardens, 10 Aug. 2021

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 4

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

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

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Last Updated

16 Oct 2021

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Oct. 2021.

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More Definitions for subtle


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

More from Merriam-Webster on subtle

Nglish: Translation of subtle for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of subtle for Arabic Speakers


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