That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means: Discreet/Discrete

“Fashion designers offer discrete ways for women to carry firearms.”
Chattanooga [TN] Times Free Press

We would like to discreetly point out that there are discrete meanings for discreet and discrete. They are not the same word with a slightly different spelling. Discreet means “capable of keeping secrets or unobtrusive” while discrete means “separate or distinct.” Both are offspring of the same Latin word, discrētus (separate, distinct, like the current discrete), but they evolved to become very distinct words.

Discreet came from the Middle French discret and discrète (prudent) and by the fourteenth century meant able to keep secrets. Discrete stayed the same as the Latin, but actually wasn’t used that widely until the sixteenth century and then chiefly in subjects like science and music that commonly used Latin and Latinized words. Some linguists speculate that the two words were initially interchangeable. But over time, the two became quite distinct, discrete if you will (or if you won’t). By the eighteenth century, dictionaries had the two words defined as they currently are, with discrete meaning “separate” (and primarily used in scholastic or scientific forums) and discreet meaning, well, “discreet.”

But many people nowadays don’t seem to know the difference, thinking that discrete is just another way of spelling discreet. This leads to usages that conjure up fascinating images like this one from a bridal site: “The bodice with a mermaid neckline blends into the back through a discrete short sleeve on the shoulder.” On the plus side, we haven’t seen any reference to Luis Bueñel’s classic film “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Yet.

**  We spoke too fast. Just spotted in the San Diego Entertainer: “If we pulled up the curtains to find the characters in “The Discrete Charm of Bourgeoisie” stuck in their own world walking down an endless path, then here, we can simply click play on our Macs, and watch the unconscious Bourgeoisie saunter through life as if it were one long brunch by the beach.”  Somewhere Bueñel is weeping …

discreet (adj): able to keep secrets, unobtrusive
discrete (adj): separate or distinct

[excerpted from That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means]