The Meaning of Subtle: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever been curious about the definition of subtle? This article will provide you with all of the knowledge that you need on the word subtle, including its definition, origin, example sentences, and more!

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What does the word subtle mean?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged English Dictionary, Dictionary, and Cambridge Dictionary, the word subtle, pronounced “ˈsʌt tle” is an adjective that means, delicate, elusive, or difficult to understand or perceive. This word can also mean something that is perfective or refined, or highly skillful. This word is often used to describe flavors or other artistic endeavors. There are different intensities of this word, including subtler and subtlest, as well as related words including the adverb subtly and the noun subtlety and subtleness. A wine might have subtle notes of chocolate, or a person might give subtle hints to their significant other that they want to get married. Something that is subtle is understated and not obvious – sometimes, something may be so subtle that someone did not even notice it at all. It takes a keen eye or other sense to recognize something that is subtle. 

The word subtle is also used in many other different languages to describe things that are hard to discern. Word Sense lists numerous translations for the word subtle. Try using different translations for the word subtle if you are learning a new language or speaking to someone who speaks a language other than English! You may notice that some of these words are very similar to the word subtle. This shows us that these words have similar origins and etymology to the word subtle. 

  • Portuguese: subtil‎ (Portugal), sutil‎ (Brazil)
  • Italian: sottile‎, inafferrabile‎
  • Hebrew: דק‎, עדין‎, מעודן‎, חמקמק‎, מרומז‎, עמום‎, טמיר‎, עלום‎
  • Swedish: subtil‎
  • Esperanto: subtila‎
  • Finnish: hienovarainen‎, hienoinen‎
  • Galician: sutil‎
  • Russian: неуловимый‎, едва различимый
  • Japanese: 捕らえ難い‎ (toraegatai)
  • German: fast unmerklich‎, haarfein‎, dezent‎, feinsinnig‎, subtil‎
  • Irish: caolchúiseach‎
  • Polish: subtelny‎
  • Turkish: güç algılanan‎, zor algılanan‎
  • Spanish: sutil‎
  • Catalan: subtil‎
  • French: subtil‎, délicat‎

What is the etymology of the word subtle?

According to Etymonline, the word subtle has been used since around the year 1300 to mean penetrating or refined. This comes from the Old French sotil, Old French soutil, and subtil, meaning adept. This comes from the 12th century and is now used in the Modern French subtil. Both of these words come from the Latin subtilis meaning fine, thin, or delicate. This was figuratively used to mean precise or exact, fine or keen. This comes from the prefix sub meaning under and the root tilis, from tela, meaning a web or net. This comes from the Proto-Indo-European root teks, meaning to weave or to fabricate. This is also where we get the word textible. The notion of using this root means that the thread that is passing under the warp is very fine, hence getting the meaning of something being refined or understated. 

How can the word subtle be used in a sentence?

The word subtle is very common and can be used in many different situations to describe things that are less than obvious. In this first example, Jenica and Frida are discussing their friend.

Jenica: I’m pretty sure Lisa is pregnant.

Frida: What? You’re crazy. Why do you think that?

Jenica: I just have a feeling. There have been a lot of subtle changes with her lately. She’s super into big flowy dresses, she hasn’t been coming out with us as much. She even stopped going to trapeze. I’m pretty sure she’s pregnant but it’s too early for her to  say anything.

Here, Jenica postulates that their friend Lisa is pregnant because of many subtle changes that have occurred. In this next example, Jenica and Frida discuss Frida’s crush on her coworker.

Jenica: By the way, that guy Mike you’re obsessed with totally likes you back.

Frida: No he doesn’t, Jen.

Jenica: He so does. I saw the way he looked at you at the holiday party. The subtle ways he found to interact with you, to scoot behind you and touch your waist even though there was plenty of room. You should ask him out.

Frida: No!

What are synonyms and antonyms for the word subtle?

There are many different words that one can use in place of the word subtle. These are called synonyms, which are words and phrases that have the same definition as another word or phrase. Synonyms are useful to know if you are looking to expand your vocabulary or if you want to avoid repeating yourself. This list of synonyms for the word subtle is provided by Thesaurus

  • hairsplitting
  • inconspicuous
  • understated
  • penetrating
  • finespun
  • sophisticated
  • attenuate
  • attenuated
  • hairline
  • suggestive
  • implied
  • ethereal
  • insinuated
  • fine
  • thin
  • indirect
  • illusive
  • faint
  • deep
  • slight
  • exquisite
  • discriminating
  • profound
  • mental
  • tenuous
  • inferred
  • ingenious
  • indistinct
  • refined

There are also many different words that have the opposite meaning of the word subtle. These are called antonyms. Antonyms are also very useful to know if you are looking to expand your knowledge of the English language. This list of antonyms for the word subtle is provided by Thesaurus as well.

  • self-explanatory
  • obvious
  • unsubtle
  • bright
  • apparent
  • discernible
  • recognizable
  • distinguishable
  • conclusive
  • lucid
  • unmistakable
  • unconcealed
  • conspicuous
  • public
  • distinct
  • visible
  • glaring
  • prominent
  • standing out
  • indisputable
  • perceptible
  • perceivable
  • clear as a bell
  • patent
  • undeniable
  • noticeable
  • open
  • overt
  • self-evident
  • barefaced
  • explicit
  • undisguised
  • evident
  • exposed
  • in evidence
  • palpable
  • straightforward
  • accessible
  • clear
  • manifest
  • transparent
  • plain
  • precise
  • pronounced
  • observable

Overall, the word subtle is an adjective that means something that is very slight or delicate, or something that can go easily unnoticed. This word is a common descriptor in the English language, and has many synonyms that have subtle differences in meaning!