May 25, 2015

Discreet vs. Discrete

This pair of homophones (words that sound alike, but are different in meaning, spelling, or both) can be confusing. Discreet implies the showing of reserve in behavior or speech. Discrete means distinct, separate, unrelated.

Both words derive from the same Latin word discretus meaning “separated.” Until the 1700s, these words were each spelled many different ways including discrete, discreet, dyscrete, discreete, etc.

Eventually discrete and discreet came to be differentiated in spelling as well as in meaning. Discreet has yielded the noun discretion, but discrete's noun form is discreteness. For most of English history, discreet was more frequently used, but today discrete is much more frequently used than discreet; it has seen a dramatic rise since the 1940s.

If the e’s are separated by the “t”,  use “discrete” (meaning “separate”).