Discrete ≠ Discreet

Some words you think you know but you have no idea that you’re using them wrong.

Case in point: the word “discrete” versus the word “discreet.” They are not the same words! Homonyms, sure, but they mean very different things. After my friend Broderick pointed out that I had used the word(s) incorrectly in a post, I had a lexical awakening: how had I gone thirty years of life using the words incorrectly? In fact, I had no fucking idea that “discreet” was a thing because I thought it was “discrete.” Very indiscrete of me.

Again: discrete is not discreet. They’re not the same word!

To explain, let’s look at the definitions. First, the definition of discrete:

1: constituting a separate entity : individually distinct (several discrete sections)
2a: consisting of distinct or unconnected elements : noncontinuous
2b: taking on or having a finite or countably infinite number of values (discrete probabilities> a discrete random variable)

Thus, “discrete” means there is an end, an individuality, a separateness to whatever is “discrete.” Accordingly, “indiscrete” is the opposite, that something is not divided.

Let’s test the word out. “They have a very discrete way about them,” I would say in relationship to that person being so individual. “I’d like a discrete amount of bananas,” I would say in reference to wanting a non-infinite amount of bananas.

So what does discreet mean then? It means what you (I) have been using “discrete” for.

1: having or showing discernment or good judgment in conduct and especially in speech : prudent; especially : capable of preserving prudent silence
2: unpretentious, modest (the warmth and discreet elegance of a civilized home — Joseph Wechsberg)
3: unobtrusive, unnoticeable (followed at a discreet distance)

This is the word that I thought I had been using when I was using “discrete.” This also makes “indiscreet” mean the revealing of something private, being non-modest.

Discreet us used in the sense of something being under the radar or suave. “I’d love a more discreet curtain,” you could tell your interior designer of the gaudy window dressing they put in. “They have a very discreet sensibility about them,” you could say of a person who blends in and is nearly forgettable.

Thus, discrete and discreet do not mean the same thing. They are very different. Use the words correctly.

That is your language lesson of the day.


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