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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 subtlest
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • It would have been the subtlest flattery, had he not been the most honest and straightforward of men.

    Whittier-land Samuel T. Pickard
  • She did not know that there are times when the emotions are more potent than the subtlest wines.

    Emmy Lou George Madden Martin
  • But certain souls are proof against the subtlest forms of hypnotism.

    Gossamer George A. Birmingham
  • He may be in an agony of fear, but only by the subtlest changes could it be detected.

  • The subtlest and most potent half of the spell is hidden; and we guess it only little by little.

    Laurus Nobilis Vernon Lee
  • The simplest forms and the subtlest agents are alike to thee.

  • He had the subtlest brain, and became the yokefellow of a Cobham.

    Sir Walter Ralegh William Stebbing
  • Their cause is due to one of the subtlest forces in the universe—ether.

    Motor Matt's Race Stanley R. Matthews
  • The Tuscans are subtle, and you are the subtlest of Tuscans; what is best?

British Dictionary definitions for subtlest


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 subtlest



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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