What’s the Word: Discrete and Discreet

What is the difference between the words discrete and discreet?  I asked myself because I have run into the former, meant as the latter, more than once in my reading. At first glance, it would seem like one of those spelling differences between Canadian English and American English, like center versus centre, but that is not the case. However, I wanted to find out the source of the difference in spelling. Might there be a connection between the two, like some common root word?

First, here are the definitions for each word.  The word “discrete” means separate and distinct.  To use it in a sentence we could say “Everyone could see that the each of the brothers’ actions were discrete, to the point that you would think they grew up in completely different countries rather than as members of the same family.” The word “discreet” means to “display the virtues of modesty, prudence, or self-restraint.” Another definition of “discreet” is “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense, or to gain an advantage.” Another meaning “is intentionally unobtrusive.”  So we could say that “The brothers were so discreet in how they behaved in public, you could tell they were raised in a proper household.”

As it turns out, both come from the Latin word “discretus” where we get “to discern.” Discern comes by way of old French, which is derived from Latin. Discern is a word commonly used in Catholic circles. For example, “The young man tried to discern if he had a calling to be a priest.” Of course, this can be used in all sorts of situations, but I bring up the Catholic influence for a reason. If a person believes that every person is uniquely created by God, then God would want each person to do what he or she was separately called to do. In order to find out what this separate calling is then he or she must be prudent, careful and circumspect, keeping it hidden until he or she is certain. In addition, when someone is working to discern their vocation, then other people must be intentionally unobtrusive.  In other words, in order for someone to be discrete in actions, then he or she must be discreet.

As I suspected, and found out through some research, these two words are similar. On the Education Bug website, there is a handy mnemonic: in discrete, the two e’s are separate. In discreet, they are hidden between other letters. I wish I’d discerned that myself!

What is the difference between the words discrete and discreet?  I asked myself because I have run into the former, meant as the latter, more than once in my reading. At first glance, it would seem like one of those spelling differences between Canadian English and American English, like center versus centre, but that is not the case. However, I wanted to find out the source of the difference in spelling. Might there be a connection between the two, like some common root word?

First, here are the definitions for each word.  The word “discrete” means separate and distinct.  To use it in a sentence we could say “Everyone could see that the each of the brothers’ actions were discrete, to the point that you would think they grew up in completely different countries rather than as members of the same family.” The word “discreet” means to “display the virtues of modesty, prudence, or self-restraint.” Another definition of “discreet” is “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions, especially in order to avoid causing offense, or to gain an advantage.” Another meaning “is intentionally unobtrusive.”  So we could say that “The brothers were so discreet in how they behaved in public, you could tell they were raised in a proper household.”

As it turns out, both come from the Latin word “discretus” where we get “to discern.” Discern comes by way of Old French, which is derived from Latin. Discern is a word commonly used in Catholic circles. For example, “The young man tried to discern if he had a calling to be a priest.” Of course, this can be used in all sorts of situations, but I bring up the Catholic influence for a reason. If a person believes that every person is uniquely created by God, then God would want each person to do what he or she was separately called to do. In order to find out what this separate calling is then he or she must be prudent, careful and circumspect, keeping it hidden until he or she is certain. In addition, when someone is working to discern their vocation, then other people must be intentionally unobtrusive.  In other words, in order for someone to be discrete in actions, then he or she must be discreet.

As I suspected, and found out through some research, these two words are similar. On the Education Bug website, I found a handy mnemonic: in discrete, the two e’s are separate. In discreet, they are hidden between other letters. I wish I’d discerned that myself!

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