Discreet - discrete

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Discreet and discrete are two homophones (the pronunciation of both has the stress on the second syllable 'dis-CREET' IPA: /dɪs 'kriːt/). They have very different meanings, even if there is only a change in the order of two letters.

  • Discreet (means 'being able to keep a secret' or 'careful and wary in one's behaviour'. (There is an associated noun, discretion, pronounced to rhyme with 'session' and 'confession', IPA: /dɪs 'krɛ ʃən/). 'Discreet' can be used to mean something like 'private', 'confidential': it implies that the person we are describing will not tell anyone else about the matter we are talking of. "Tutors should be discreet about their students' errors."
  • Discrete is a scholarly way of saying 'separate' or 'distinct'. Soil may contain discrete remnants of a rock that broke down; statistical data may be discrete or continuous; a politician may have several discrete motives for what he is doing: his action will in the end be a compromise.
Etymological note: The words discrete and discreet both come ultimately from the Latin verb discernĕre (‘to divide’, ’to separate’, ‘to distinguish between’). Discrete comes from discrētus, which is the past passive participle of the verb and means ‘separated’ or ‘set apart’, while discreet comes from the related noun discretio, which in Classical Latin meant ‘separation’ or ‘distinction’ but in Late Latin acquired the further meaning ‘ability or capacity to distinguish, separate, or draw distinctions’.