Many English-language speakers has fallen prey to one of its many flaws—homophones. Homophones are pairs of words that sound completely alike yet are spelled differently and have different meanings. The words discrete and discreet are only one pair out of hundreds in the language.
So what’s the difference between the two? Discreet means “cautious,” “careful,” and “reserved,” especially in speech. Discrete, on the other hand, means “divided” or “separate”. If for example, “The discreet man is wearing a gray suit,” you mean that the man in a gray suit is being cautious and careful. However, if you say that “The discrete man is wearing a gray suit,” you mean that the man in a gray suit is separated from the rest.
Here are some more examples to help you work out the differences between the two words.
He painted the gear red to make it more discreet.
The red gear was discrete from the rest of the mechanism.
So why are these words spelled so alike even though they mean completely different things? Buckle up; this is where things get a bit complicated.
Both words come from the same Latin root discretus, which means “separated.” The word discrete and its original meaning fell out of use around the fourteenth century. In Old French, the word discret, which meant “sensible,” was adapted back into English as “discreet.”
In English, “discreet” is used to mean “cautious” but was often misspelled as “discrete.” This fuelled confusion once the word discrete was popularized again in the sixteenth century. As the language continued to evolve, they were formally given separate meanings. The noun form of discreet is discretion, which is closer to its Latin root. On the other hand, discreteness is the noun form of discrete.
Still confused? Think of it this way: Superman becomes Clark Kent to become discreet. However, Superman is also a discrete identity from Clark Kent.
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