sêt-l • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: So fine or refined as to be barely discernable, barely distinct, almost undetectable.
Notes: Today's good adjective compares the old-fashioned way, with suffixes: subtler and subtlest, the superlative. The noun is subtlety and the adverb, subtly. "So, where's the [b] in the pronunciation?" you might very well ask. Well, English doesn't do consonant clusters like BTL, so something has to go and B is it in this case.
In Play: Anything that is barely discernable by sight, sound, taste, feel, or smell is subtle: "Clara Belle's knocking at the door was so subtle that Irma Jean didn't hear it back in the kitchen." Visual subtlety is covered, too: "The slight drool emanating from the corner of Seamus Eaton's mouth was a subtle hint that he wanted to try Mrs. Farnsworth's fresh blackberry pie."
Word History: Old English borrowed this word from Old French soutil; later the spelling was adapted to Latin. Shakespeare spelled today's Good Word subtile as often as subtle in the First Folio. Latin subtilis "thin, fine, slender" was based on sub "under" + tela "web, woven stuff", a noun from texo "I weave, plait, braid". Subtilis would seem to have originally referred to the thread passing under the warp in weaving, apparently a finer thread. As you can see, the extended family of subtle includes textile, text, as well as architect and technology, that last one from the Greek derivative of the word for "weaving": techne "craft, skill". (We would like to thank Chuck Lee for the subtle reminder that subtle is an interesting word to explore.)
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