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[suht-l] /ˈsʌt l/
adjective, subtler, subtlest.
thin, tenuous, or rarefied, as a fluid or an odor.
fine or delicate in meaning or intent; difficult to perceive or understand:
subtle irony.
delicate or faint and mysterious:
a subtle smile.
requiring mental acuteness, penetration, or discernment:
a subtle philosophy.
characterized by mental acuteness or penetration:
a subtle understanding.
cunning, wily, or crafty:
a subtle liar.
insidious in operation:
subtle poison.
skillful, clever, or ingenious:
a subtle painter.
Origin of subtle
1250-1300; Middle English sotil < Old French < Latin subtīlis subtile (b of modern spelling < L)
Related forms
subtleness, noun
subtly, adverb
hypersubtle, adjective
hypersubtleness, noun
nonsubtle, adjective
nonsubtleness, noun
nonsubtly, adverb
oversubtle, adjective
oversubtly, adverb
pseudosubtle, adjective
pseudosubtly, adverb
unsubtle, adjective
unsubtleness, noun
unsubtly, adverb
6. sly, tricky, foxy, slick. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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Examples from the Web for subtle
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • A subtle atmosphere distinguishes a town in England from a town in France, or even in Scotland.

  • Depend upon it, this happiness is too subtle and too divine a thing for our management.

    Deerbrook Harriet Martineau
  • His face seemed strangely chastened, and the voice which craved a private interview filled me somehow with subtle hope and joy.

    St. Cuthbert's Robert E. Knowles
  • Good taste is the most subtle of all the codes of judgment which are cultivated by the mores.

    Folkways William Graham Sumner
  • His defence contains many superb passages and is a masterpiece of gentle irony and subtle exposure of error.

    Authors of Greece T. W. Lumb
British Dictionary definitions for subtle


not immediately obvious or comprehensible
difficult to detect or analyse, often through being delicate or highly refined: a subtle scent
showing or making or capable of showing or making fine distinctions of meaning
marked by or requiring mental acuteness or ingenuity; discriminating
delicate or faint: a subtle shade
cunning or wily: a subtle rogue
operating or executed in secret: a subtle intrigue
Derived Forms
subtleness, noun
subtly, adverb
Word Origin
C14: from Old French soutil, from Latin subtīlis finely woven
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for subtle

c.1300, sutel, soutil, in reference to things, "of thin consistency;" in reference to craftsmen, "skilled, clever," from Old French soutil, from Latin subtilis "fine, thin, delicate, finely woven," from sub "under" (see sub-) + -tilis, from tela "web" and texere "to weave" (see texture). The spelling with -b- reflects confusion with subtile. Most non-material senses were present by late 14c.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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