Okay, so I already spelled it. I know that. But every time I come across this word lately, folks aren’t spelling it the way I do. They’re spelling it discrete.

In my ancient and pedantic world, these are two completely different words with two completely different meanings. Discrete comes from the Latin discretus (separate or distinct) whereas discreet comes from the old French discret (circumspect or discerning). Both have their base origin in the Latin verb discenere (to discern).

Discreet means quietly and unobtrusively, so as not to be noticed. The chairman of the golf club had a discreet affair. She gave the waiter a discreet tip. I was watching them from the window, but I tried to be discreet about it.

Discrete means separate, not a part of. HeyPetz used to be part of PetzFun, but now they are two discrete companies.

I honestly can’t think of any occasions that I’ve used discrete – except perhaps at school in a science or geography lesson – but it’s still a completely different word from discreet and it doesn’t mean the same thing at all. ‘The chairman of the golf club had a discrete affair’ is a very different sentence from ‘the chairman of the golf club had a discreet affair’. I don’t deny that ‘a discrete affair’ is probably a thing in some circles but, generally speaking, it isn’t what the writer means.

I have seen these two confused so much recently that I was beginning to think there had been some seismic shift in accepted usage. But investigation has assured me this isn’t so; they are both still used the way I thought they were. It’s just another of those occasions in the English language where you have to memorise the difference between two words that sound exactly the same but mean two very different things. (These are called homophones if you’re interested).

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