What's in a Word | All Blogs

Weaving a word

By Debra Dobbins

Jeremy’s use of “subtle” cracked me up today. I knew he meant “delicately suggestive,” a definition given by Webster’s Dictionary. I assumed it would be the first definition, but it is actually the fifth.

The first definition is “thin, rare; tenuous; not dense or heavy.” Webster’s notes that the word is derived (taken) from the Latin word subtilis, originally meaning “closely woven.” That word came from three words that meant “under the warp,” according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, which is cited by www.encyclopedia.com.

A warp is a machine used by weavers. So, we can assume that ancient weavers sometimes used thin threads in creating intricate (highly detailed) tapestries, rugs and other woven products. These products probably were most admired by those with a keen appreciation for detail that was missed by more casual observers.

We don’t pronounce the “b” in this word. We say SUH-tul. Why? One of the three words was “sub,” which means "under." I can only surmise (guess) that when the words were woven together the “b” remained. People probably found it awkward to pronounce. It must have morphed into a silent letter, joining words such as “debt,” “doubt” and “climb” that have vexed English spellers for centuries.

To include “b” or not to include “b” … yes, that’s been the question. Learning the history of a word sometimes gives us the answer.


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