Ah, another confusing pair of homophones (words that sound alike but are different in meaning). And, we’re not going to be discreet about it: these two can be confusing. So, let’s try to keep them discrete.
What does discreet mean?
Discreet means “judicious in one’s conduct or speech, especially with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature.” Or, more generally, “prudent, unobtrusive.”
- Texting is more discreet than talking because what you text can’t be overheard by others; it’s private.
- I got an emergency phone call in the middle of the meeting, so I tried to be discreet as I left the room.
- The researchers stayed at a discreet location in the mountains.
What does discrete mean?
Discrete means something quite different from discreet: “apart or detached from others; separate, distinct, discontinuous.”
- When Netflix hiked its price by a few bucks a month and tried to separate DVD rentals and online streaming into two discrete services, everyone was pretty annoyed.
- The song was composed of different, discrete parts that didn’t repeat a common theme.
- We found that the glitch was a discrete occurrence, not part of a larger issue with the program.
In mathematics, discrete has several specialized senses, such as “defined only for an isolated set of points,” such as a discrete (noncontinuous) variable. The mathematical discrete can be understood as “finite” or “countable.”
According to Google Ngrams data, discrete has seen a dramatic rise since the 1940s. This may be due to the use of discrete in mathematical and scientific literature.
Where do discreet and discrete come from?
Both discrete and discreet share a root in the Latin discrētus, “distinct, separate.” However, discrete was borrowed directly from Latin while discreet passed into English from the French discret, which had the sense of “discerning, wise,” hence “circumspect, prudent” in English. (Indeed, the root verb of Latin’s discrētus is discenere, source of discern.)
While discreet is recorded slightly earlier, both terms come into English in the 1300s. In the 1500s, discrete became more widespread, and so the spelling discreet came to prevail for its sense.
One way to remember the difference between the two is that the noun form of discreet is discretion: You’re showing discretion when you are being discreet. The noun form of discrete is discreteness.