Alternative forms


From Middle English sotil, subtil, from Old French soutil, later subtil, French subtil, from Latin subtilis ‎(fine, thin, slender, delicate); probably, originally, “woven fine”, and from sub ‎(under) + tela ‎(a web), from texere ‎(to weave).



subtle ‎(comparative subtler, superlative subtlest)

  1. Hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood; barely noticeable.
    The difference is subtle, but you can hear it if you listen carefully.
    • 1712, Richard Blackmore, Creation: A Philosophical Poem. Demonstrating the Existence and Providence of a God. In Seven Books, book I, London: Printed for S. Buckley, at the Dolphin in Little-Britain; and J[acob] Tonson, at Shakespear's Head over-against Catherine-Street in the Strand, OCLC 731619916; 5th edition, Dublin: Printed by S. Powell, for G. Risk, G. Ewing, and W. Smith, in Dame's-street, 1727, OCLC 728300884, page 7:
      The mighty Magnet from the Center darts / This ſtrong, tho' ſubtile Force, thro' all the Parts: / Its active Rays ejaculated thence, / Irradiate all the wide Circumference.
  2. (of a thing) Cleverly contrived.
  3. (of a person or animal) Cunning, skillful.
  4. Insidious.
  5. Tenuous; rarefied; of low density or thin consistency.



Derived terms


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