sub·​tle ˈsə-tᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio)
subtler ˈsət-lər How to pronounce subtle (audio)
; subtlest ˈsət-ləst How to pronounce subtle (audio)
: 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
: 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
: 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.
: 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
: 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
: cunningly made or contrived : ingenious
… a remarkably subtle portrayal of a nation overtaken by an Orwellian nightmare.Joan Podhoretz
: 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
: 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
subtleness noun
ˈsət-lē How to pronounce subtle (audio)

Did you know?

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.

Example Sentences

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. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Opoku-Agyeman, the graduate student at Harvard Kennedy School, said the lack of diversity in economics exposes her to moments of subtle but harmful forms of disrespect, such as people questioning her ability. Max Zahn, ABC News, 5 Mar. 2023 This is a movie operating on the principle that the most routine form of this violence isn’t sensational, but subtle. K. Austin Collins, Rolling Stone, 2 Mar. 2023 In the close-up pic of the subtle but major transformation, Gellar, 45, pairs her chic new bob with a bright red lip, shimmery nude eyeshadow, and rosy cheeks. Tracey Harrington Mccoy, Peoplemag, 24 Feb. 2023 But its combination of rosy pink and subtle golden shimmer makes this product truly ideal for a wide range of skin tones. Harper's BAZAAR, 21 Feb. 2023 From backpacks and belt bags to totes, duffels, and carry-on suitcases, seeking subtle or modern Disney prints easily make these bags stylish enough for non-Disney trips year-round. Tara Block, Travel + Leisure, 21 Feb. 2023 In ways both overt and subtle, Ms. Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, is setting up her 2024 presidential bid as the latest test of the Republican Party’s attitudes about female leaders. Lisa Lerer, New York Times, 19 Feb. 2023 And those recordings tell a story that differs from the old view — in subtle but important ways. Bob Holmes, Discover Magazine, 18 Feb. 2023 Achieving something that is both impactful and subtle is all in the details—and backstage at the New York Public Library, those details began with good skincare. Celia Ellenberg, Vogue, 15 Feb. 2023 See More

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.

Word History


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, in the meaning defined at sense 4

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

Dictionary Entries Near subtle

Cite this Entry

“Subtle.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition


sub·​tle ˈsət-ᵊl How to pronounce subtle (audio)
subtler ˈsət-lər How to pronounce subtle (audio)
; subtlest ˈsət-ləst How to pronounce subtle (audio)
: delicate sense 1, elusive
a subtle fragrance
: difficult to understand or distinguish
subtle differences in vowel sounds
: marked by a keen ability to understand
a subtle mind
: sly sense 1a, crafty
subtle flattery
: working slowly but effectively
a subtle poison
subtleness noun
ˈsət-lē How to pronounce subtle (audio)

Middle English sotil, subtile "delicate," from early French sotil (same meaning), from Latin subtilis "delicate," literally, "finely woven," from sub "under, close to" and tela "fabric woven on a loom"

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