[ suht-l ]
See synonyms for subtle on
adjective,sub·tler, sub·tlest.
  1. thin, tenuous, or rarefied, as a fluid or an odor.

  2. fine or delicate in meaning or intent; difficult to perceive or understand: subtle irony.

  1. delicate or faint and mysterious: a subtle smile.

  2. requiring mental acuteness, penetration, or discernment: a subtle philosophy.

  3. characterized by mental acuteness or penetration: a subtle understanding.

  4. cunning, wily, or crafty: a subtle liar.

  5. insidious in operation: subtle poison.

  6. skillful, clever, or ingenious: a subtle painter.

Origin of subtle

First recorded in 1250–1300; Middle English sotil, from Old French, from Latin subtīlis “subtile” (the b of modern spelling is from Latin ); see subtile

Other words for subtle

Other words from subtle

  • sub·tle·ness, noun
  • sub·tly, adverb
  • hy·per·sub·tle, adjective
  • hy·per·sub·tle·ness, noun
  • non·sub·tle, adjective
  • non·sub·tle·ness, noun
  • o·ver·sub·tle, adjective
  • pseu·do·sub·tle, adjective
  • un·sub·tle, adjective
  • un·sub·tle·ness, noun Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

How to use subtle in a sentence

  • Her upper lip quivered with a movement that was between a tremor and a smile, subtler than either.

    The Creators | May Sinclair
  • His had never been the din and crash of warfare by sword and cannon, but the subtler, deeper combat of the pen.

    With Edged Tools | Henry Seton Merriman
  • One feels that in the three centuries since Monna Lisa love has taken on a new and subtler nuance.

  • No subtler tempter ever spoke to the hearts of a man and a woman.

    The Devil | Joseph O'Brien
  • A subtler, a weirder, a more awful horror is thus added to the dread of communion with the supernatural.

    The Science of Fairy Tales | Edwin Sidney Hartland

British Dictionary definitions for subtle


/ (ˈsʌtəl) /

  1. not immediately obvious or comprehensible

  2. difficult to detect or analyse, often through being delicate or highly refined: a subtle scent

  1. showing or making or capable of showing or making fine distinctions of meaning

  2. marked by or requiring mental acuteness or ingenuity; discriminating

  3. delicate or faint: a subtle shade

  4. cunning or wily: a subtle rogue

  5. operating or executed in secret: a subtle intrigue

Origin of subtle

C14: from Old French soutil, from Latin subtīlis finely woven

Derived forms of subtle

  • subtleness, noun
  • subtly, adverb

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