The Difference Between Discrete and Discreet

Today I found out the difference between discrete and discreet.

Simply put, “discreet” describes showing “reserve, prudence, or cautiousness” in one’s behavior or speech.  “Discrete”, on the other hand, means “distinct, separate, or unrelated”.   A quick and easy mnemonic to remember the difference is to see that in “discrete”, unlike “discreet”, the “e’s” are separated and the definition itself is “separate/distinct”.

The noun form of “discreet” is “discretion”, as most people use correctly.  However, the noun form of “discrete” is not “discretion”, but rather “discreteness”, which often causes yet another grammatical blunder associated with discrete/discreet.

Both “discreet” and “discrete” derive from the Latin “discretus”, meaning “separate, situated, put apart”, which in turn derives from the Late Latin “discernere”, which is also where we get the word “discern”.  “Discretus” then gave rise to the Old French “discret”, meaning “sensible, intelligent, wise”, which by the 17th century became “discreet” and came to mean as it does today, “prudent, careful, reserved”.

Bonus Facts:

  • “Discrete” and “discreet” are an example of a homophone: words that sound alike, but differ in meaning or spelling or both, in this case, both.
  • Other common homophones include: plane/plain; carat/caret/carrot; to, too, two; and rose (flower)/rose (past tense of “rise”).
  • In the case of “rose/rose”, where the homophone is spelled the same, but with a different meaning, these are also homographs and homonyms.
  • When the homophone is spelled different, such as “plain/plane”, these are also called heterographs.
  • “Homophone” derives from the Greek “homo” (meaning “same”), and phōnḗ (meaning “voice/utterance”).
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