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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. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for subtleness
Historical Examples
  • The charm of woman, too, lies partly in her subtleness in matters of love.

    A Pair of Blue Eyes Thomas Hardy
  • He only knew the ethics of the deed was shaded with the subtleness of villainy.

    The Blind Spot Austin Hall
  • He speaks, as well he might, of the inconstancy and subtleness of the people with whom we deal.

  • It nettled him to be put on the defensive, his subtleness openly contemned.


    Howard Vincent O'Brien
  • He met the glance with a slow grin which had in it a quality of that subtleness she had noticed in him before.

    'Drag' Harlan

    Charles Alden Seltzer
  • It is not stupendous or remarkably awesome; but it is grand, with a subtleness which is inexpressible.

  • The popular spirit in literature was one of subtleness, irony, superficial observations on manners and customs.

    Women of Modern France (Illustrated) Hugo Paul Thieme (1870-1940)
  • Belbeis had long ago proved his fidelity, and as to his "subtleness," of which Naoum had spoken, that was beyond doubt.

    Under the Rebel's Reign Charles Neufeld
  • But he watched all that went on in the house with that subtleness of penetration which fever so often imparts.

    The Honor of the Name Emile Gaboriau
  • One aspect of the recent stories of diabolism is the subtleness by which the evil is suggested.

British Dictionary definitions for subtleness


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 subtleness



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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