From Middle English sotil, soubtil, subtil, borrowed from Old French soutil, subtil, from Latin subtīlis (“fine, thin, slender, delicate”); probably, originally, “woven fine”, and from sub (“under”) + tēla (“a web”), from texere (“to weave”). Displaced native Old English smēag.
- Hard to grasp; not obvious or easily understood; barely noticeable.
- Antonym: simple
- 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.
- (of a thing) Cleverly contrived.
- (of a person or animal) Cunning, skillful.
- c. 1593, William Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Richard the Third: […]”, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies: Published According to the True Originall Copies (First Folio), London: […] Isaac Iaggard, and Ed[ward] Blount, published 1623, OCLC 606515358, [Act I, scene i], page 173:
- And if King Edward be as true and iuſt, / As I am Subtle, Falſe, and Treacherous,
- Tenuous; rarefied; of low density or thin consistency.
- (obsolete) Refined; exquisite.
- The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout § Translations.
- subtle in The Century Dictionary, New York, N.Y.: The Century Co., 1911.
- subtle in Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam, 1913.
- John A. Simpson and Edward S. C. Weiner, editors (1989), “subtle”, in The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, →ISBN.