One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
= subtle matter.
Mid 17th century; earliest use found in Robert Hooke (1635–1703), natural philosopher. From post-classical Latin materia subtilis, lit. ‘subtle matter’ (1644 in a translation of Descartes by E. de Courcelles, after French matiere subtile (Descartes Dioptrique i. 87)) from classical Latin matēria + subtīlis.
materia subtilis/məˌtɪərɪə ˈsʌbtɪlɪs/
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