Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • adj. So slight as to be difficult to detect or describe; elusive: a subtle smile.
  • adj. Difficult to understand; abstruse: an argument whose subtle point was lost on her opponent.
  • adj. Able to make fine distinctions: a subtle mind.
  • adj. Characterized by skill or ingenuity; clever.
  • adj. Crafty or sly; devious.
  • adj. Operating in a hidden, usually injurious way; insidious: a subtle poison.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • adj. Hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood; barely noticeable.
  • adj. Cleverly contrived.
  • adj. Cunning, skillful.
  • adj. insidious
  • adj. Tenuous; rarefied; of low density or thin consistency.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • adj. Sly in design; artful; cunning; insinuating; subtile; -- applied to persons.
  • adj. Cunningly devised; crafty; treacherous.
  • adj. Characterized by refinement and niceness in drawing distinctions; nicely discriminating; -- said of persons; ; refined; tenuous; sinuous; insinuating; hence, penetrative or pervasive; -- said of the mind; its faculties, or its operations; ; also, difficult of apprehension; elusive.
  • adj. Smooth and deceptive.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • Same as subtile, 1.
  • Same as subtile, 2.
  • Sly; insinuating; artful; cunning; crafty; deceitful; treacherous: as, a subtle adversary; a subtle scheme. Also subtile.
  • Cunningly devised; artfully contrived or handled; ingenious; clever: as, a subtle stratagem. Also subtile.
  • Characterized by acuteness and penetration of mind; sagacious; discerning; discriminating; shrewd; quick-witted: as, a subtle understanding; subtle penetration or insight. Also subtile.
  • Made carefully level; smooth; even.
  • Ingenious; skilful; clever; handy: as, a subtle operator. Also subtile.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • adj. able to make fine distinctions
  • adj. difficult to detect or grasp by the mind or analyze
  • adj. working or spreading in a hidden and usually injurious way

Etymologies

Middle English sotil, from Old French, from Latin subtīlis; see teks- in Indo-European roots.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
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"). (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • But what they like most, Ms. Gary suspects, is that almost all ropes have been removed from rooms in the mansion, eliminating what she describes as a subtle but powerful negative.

    A Well-Maintained 100-Year-Old

  • In his report to the Security Council, Moreno-Ocampo said hundreds of civilians were killed during the last six months in Darfur, while thousands more were forcefully displaced and more than 2.5 million people are suffering what he called a subtle form of genocide through rape and fear.

    ICC Prosecutor: Genocide in Darfur is 'On-Going'

  • I am really talking about two intertwined strands--which I referred to as the subtle/subversive body earlier.

    Archive 2007-08-01

  • GUPTA: Gregory O'Gara says when his kids are out of control, he sometimes uses what he calls a subtle smack or a whack.

    CNN Transcript Nov 14, 2005

  • We heard the defense lawyers in this particular case make a case for the state here having what they call a subtle case here.

    CNN Transcript May 9, 2002

  • Never before in all my life had I heard a boy use the word subtle.

    The View from Saturday

  • It was not that when she tried to be what she called subtle (for wasn't Limbert subtle, and wasn't I?) her fond consumers, bless them, didn't suspect the trick nor show what they thought of it: they straightway rose on the contrary to the morsel she had hoped to hold too high, and, making but a big, cheerful bite of it, wagged their great collective tail artlessly for more.

    Embarrassments

  • I imagine in subtle ways, the race/cultural background shows up.

    Special Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on the Myth of Meritocracy

  • I think that “the five” nudged the “humans” who they were in subtle ways toward some desired ends.

    Matthew Yglesias » Farley: Human-Cylon Alliance is Impractical and Irresponsible

  • I'm not attributing any of these intentions to you, but only here making the point that very often the worst bias-ism comes in subtle packages that most of us just swallow hook, line, and sinker, often in the guish of political correctness.

    Discourse.net: The Case for the Hate Crimes Bill

Comments

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  • The spelling hangs in a kind of limbo: it's changed from subtile, but it doesn't reflect the pronunciation either.

    Edit: hang on, the Online Etymology Dictionary actually calls subtile a 'Latinized refashioning of the O.Fr. source of subtle'. I'd thought the word had slurred progressively on the way from subtilis, but apparently not.

    December 31, 2007

  • What a strange little word this is!

    December 29, 2007