Definition of subtle in English:



  • 1(especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe.

    ‘his language expresses rich and subtle meanings’
    • ‘But mostly change is subtle, almost delicate, and it is viewed most clearly not from the stand or drawing room but with a squint-eyed look from across the net.’
    • ‘Although there are subtle changes on Parade, it's not radically dissimilar to what fans have come to expect.’
    • ‘I miss subtle changes in language over a magazine's course.’
    • ‘They alleviate the difficulties of observing subtle changes that are difficult to observe with more established methods such as superimposition.’
    • ‘I've been online since 1996 as a writer, and the sea change was subtle, but serious.’
    • ‘But the changes are so subtle that they are difficult to apprehend and you cannot be certain that this is the case.’
    • ‘But the catches have been going down faster than the quotas and environmentalists suspect the bigger factor is a chain of subtle changes triggered by a slight rise in temperature in the North Sea.’
    • ‘Some of us have a finely tuned nose, able to detect subtle differences and describe fragrance with colourful adjectives such as musky, syrupy and spicy.’
    • ‘They can also remove certain features of a landscape to enhance others and isolate subtle changes with mathematical precision.’
    • ‘Imaging techniques used by the team can demonstrate extremely subtle changes in the structures of the brain as the disease progresses and detect any change in response to treatment.’
    • ‘I saw young black spruces growing higher than ever before on boreal hillsides in Alaska, and subtle changes transform the tundra.’
    • ‘As time went by, a subtle change began to overtake her, transforming her by degrees into another person hardly recognizable to her children.’
    • ‘But change is subtle and sometimes imperceptible.’
    • ‘For how spare it is, the track is incredibly moving as every subtle change and alteration in the slowly accumulating tones takes on heavy emotional weight.’
    • ‘But take a look at the television advertisements targeting Hispanic voters in this state, and you'll notice a subtle change.’
    • ‘Again it appears to be that the most sensitive organ is the liver, and nobody has done a careful study to look at whether there are subtle changes in muscle or other tissues yet.’
    • ‘The software analyses voice patterns, and detects subtle changes which can point to the claimants lying.’
    • ‘However, when both languages are in the same book, subtle differences make it difficult for some readers, usually those reading in Spanish.’
    • ‘The actors lip-synch the songs and Neil creates different personalities with subtle changes in his voice.’
    • ‘More fundamentally, this book is at times reckless in its disregard for the subtle changes in the representation of religious differences across the period from Shakespeare to Milton.’
    fine, fine-drawn, ultra-fine, nice, overnice, minute, precise, narrow, tenuous
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    1. 1.1 (of a mixture or effect) delicately complex and understated.
      ‘subtle lighting’
      • ‘There is a hint of gold and a very slight sweetness with a subtle herb flavour and a gentle smell of newly-mown hay: a delicate flavouring that doesn't overpower the vodka.’
      • ‘This elusive goal requires a deep understanding of the components of speech and of the subtle effects of a person's volume, pitch, timing and emphasis.’
      • ‘Moreover, pasteurisation would ruin the subtle cheese flavours stemming from the hillside pastures.’
      • ‘The effect is subtle, yet it works, and while the overall result is undeniably decadent, the space feels individual as opposed to ostentatious.’
      • ‘It's quite a subtle effect, but it's definitely there.’
      • ‘Creamy nutty oak flavours backing up some subtle fruit flavours of nectarine, peach and apple juice.’
      • ‘The defiant stare, too, would have made a subtle effect, emphasised by the averted, pixellated face of the tubby, shorter guard.’
      • ‘The last time there was wind from this direction it brought with it a torrential horizontal downpour of rain, but no hope or fear of that this time. The effect is more subtle.’
      • ‘My Munchurian Chicken was mild, the chicken complemented by a subtle sauce flavoured with onions, garlic, ginger, finely chopped herbs and plenty of pepper.’
      • ‘More subtle effects of air resistance on projectile motion are related to the shape and rotation of the object.’
      • ‘Limes have a stimulating, wake-me-up freshness that sets off the less obvious flavours of more subtle fruits and vegetables.’
      • ‘The pasta, which was tossed in a white wine and cream sauce, received a good response and was praised for its subtle mushroom flavours.’
      • ‘Various sweet dishes, of which ice cream is the most obvious example, can be given a subtle tea flavour, but some is also used in some parts of the world for savoury dishes.’
      • ‘White tea should only be blended with very subtle ingredients, if any at all, to prevent it from being overpowered.’
      • ‘By themselves, these genes had only subtle effects on the temporal pattern of egg laying.’
      • ‘The way he used elements of other film scores for certain subtle effects.’
      • ‘No study can adequately predict the long-term and subtle effects of a vaccine prior to its introduction to a group as large as most of the population of our planet.’
      • ‘Try using pigment pads on dark paper for a subtle effect.’
      • ‘A third factor is that subtle effects of preen oil may not be detectable in captive birds.’
      • ‘Fortunately it means bargain prices for this complex and subtle wine, which is on sale in limited quantities for €8.89 a bottle.’
      understated, low-key, muted, toned down, subdued
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    2. 1.2 Capable of making fine distinctions.
      ‘a subtle mind’
      • ‘That was not an impossible ideal but it did require a subtle mind to grasp it.’
      • ‘There is another, parsimonious explanation that escapes many would be subtle minds.’
      • ‘She read and brooded over philosophical problems; her mind was subtle, but her judgements were sometimes uncertain.’
      • ‘However, the truth is the mind is very subtle and it has the ability to rationalize which can turn the obvious into the ambiguous, and vice versa.’
      • ‘One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie.’
      astute, keen, quick, fine, acute, sharp, razor-like, razor-sharp, rapier-like, canny, shrewd, aware, perceptive, discerning, sensitive, discriminating, penetrating, sagacious, wise, clever, intelligent, skilful, artful
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    3. 1.3 Arranged in an ingenious and elaborate way.
      ‘the German plan was simple yet subtle’
      • ‘Instead, they rally the people through subtle statements straight from the heart.’
      • ‘By means of ingenious and subtle arguments and making the fewest possible assumptions, he arrived at the following conclusions.’
      • ‘I've found more subtle, quiet ways to make sure everyone around pays attention to me now.’
      • ‘Instead, these works are subtle and quiet, yet filled with mood.’
      • ‘The rum opens up the subtle and elaborate world of flavours within each chocolate.’
  • 2Making use of clever and indirect methods to achieve something.

    ‘he tried a more subtle approach’
    • ‘Jesus used an indirect and subtle method of communication which may well have been more effective than direct, dogmatic statements.’
    • ‘Some of the solutions to your problems are very subtle and clever.’
    • ‘The characters are revealed in clever and subtle ways.’
    • ‘The function of formal rules and accountability mechanisms in the regulation of police work is more indirect and subtle.’
    • ‘It is subtle and clever and knows how to get our attention.’
    • ‘These were the new readers the Irish Times had to attract in order to survive, and Gageby set out on a subtle course to achieve it.’
    • ‘More subtle methods were employed in achieving operational and strategic success.’
    • ‘Yet the approach may be more subtle - and quite clever as well.’
    • ‘His methods aren't subtle but when you have megalomaniacal ambitions it's easy not to be shy about getting your hands dirty while disposing of assorted Latino gangsters.’
    • ‘Instead, Adams is relying on more subtle methods to protect his old lady's integrity.’
    • ‘Siblings' methods may be subtle, but they're no less cutting.’
    • ‘These strategic dilemmas are supported with some subtle and clever tactical dynamics.’
    • ‘They would prefer more subtle methods of signaling unhappiness with a stock.’
    • ‘However subtle and indirect, its provenance in the peace settlement reveals it to be too much an enterprise of political imposition, and too little of genuine consent.’
    • ‘Girls tend to use more indirect, subtle, and social methods such as exclusion, manipulation, and spreading rumors.’
    • ‘Throughout the history of nations, inflation has been a time-honored and subtle method for governments to plunder its citizenry.’
    • ‘He will use diplomatic methods and more subtle military pressure.’
    • ‘Lynn's method is at once subtle and mechanical.’
    • ‘But their moves were quiet and furtive, and hard to trace, and so I was forced to use subtle methods to seek the root of this vile blossom.’
    • ‘Then again, maybe we won't, as this is the kind of information that can be used in very subtle ways to achieve certain ends.’
  • 3archaic Crafty; cunning.

    ‘the subtle fiend dissembled’
    • ‘The King James Version uses subtle rather than crafty, but the meaning is the same.’
    • ‘But the serpent was as subtle and cunning as ever, more than any other beast who dwelt within the garden which the Gods had made.’
    ingenious, clever, skilful, adroit, cunning, crafty, wily, artful, devious
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Middle English (also in the sense ‘not easily understood’): from Old French sotil, from Latin subtilis.