The words “discreet” and “discrete” have similar word origins. They both come from the Latin word discretus, which means something that is separated from others, different, or distinct. Despite their similar roots, however, they have very different meanings, so it’s best not to get the two confused.
These words are homophones – words with different meaning and spelling but the same sound – so people who aren’t fluent in English or are fluent in the language but don’t often use words like these tend to mix them up. In today’s Grammar Corner lesson, we differentiate the two.
Discreet vs. Discrete
We can further trace the Latin roots of the two words to the Latin word discernō, from which discretus stems from. The word can be broken down into dis- (meaning pieces, apart, separate, in two) and cernō, which means to see or discern. Technically, we do this in both “discreet” and “discrete,” but in two very different ways.
“Discreet” is an adjective. To say something or someone is discreet means it goes by unnoticed, does not arouse suspicion, and attracts as little attention as possible to itself. A person, animal, or object would try to be discreet usually for three reasons: to avoid unwanted attention, to avoid offending others, or to gain an advantage from moving unseen.
Sometimes, you can opt to be discreet in certain situations. Let’s say you and five other friends have to leave another friend’s wedding early. It would be rude if all six of you stood up and made your way to the door. Your host friend and the guests will notice all of you leaving in the middle of the party, which is rude and inconsiderate to the trouble your friend went through to hold the party. So, instead of making a scene, you can opt to be “discreet” about your exit and leave one at a time at random intervals so that no one notices all of you have gone.
Or, let’s say you’re buying an adult toy online and are having it delivered to your home where you still live with your parents. You don’t want your parents to know what’s inside the package or where you’ve bought the package, so you talk to the seller and ask for “discreet” packaging. When it arrives in the mail a few days later, you receive a regular looking box covered with regular packaging that does not give away what the package is.
Or, let’s say you are a journalist trying to get a scoop on a rumor you’ve been hearing on the streets lately. So as not to arouse suspicion or get other journalists interested in the story, you ask around “discreetly” so as not to arouse suspicion or interest from other people. By doing so discreetly, you get to the bottom of the story before anyone else does.
In all three cases, the term “discreet” is used when you want something done without drawing too much attention. The reasons and motivation behind it can vary between scenarios, but the act of doing everything inconspicuously or on the down-low makes something discreet.
Discrete is also an adjective and is much closer to its Latin origin’s definition. It refers to an object that is separate and distinct from the rest of the bunch. Its counterpart is “continuous,” which groups objects into one group without interruption.
Discrete items are unique and separate from anything around them. For example, let’s say you have a Hawaiian pizza cut into eight slices. Instead of just picking any slice, you want the slice with the most ham and least pineapples. So you know that unless each slice was designed to have the same amount of cheese, ham, and pineapple, not all slices are alike even if they belong to the same pizza. In your mind, you want that one “discrete” pizza slice because it has your ideal topping ratio.
The term discrete is used in math to describe quantitative variables (things you can count). Discrete variables are those with gaps or interruptions in the values that it becomes a standalone number, while continuous variables are numbers that can increase or decrease and aren’t as standalone. For example, let’s say that in three consecutive days, the number of people admitted into a hospital are 5, 7, and 9. There’s no correlation between these numbers, which means there is a gap between them, therefore they are “discrete” numbers. On the other hand, if we talk about a continuous variable like height, if we find two people with nearly the same height, we can still find someone whose height falls in between the two.
While discreet and discrete both talk about separating something or someone from a group, there two are definitely not interchangeable. Discreet is applied to things and people acting in such a manner that does not attract attention, while discrete talks about an object being distinct and separate from the rest.
You’re more likely to see the word “discrete” in a math context as it’s not really used in everyday conversation as a way of describing something as unique or separate. You are, however, more likely to see the word “discreet” in everyday contexts, especially when someone wants to refer to something that shouldn’t be too conspicuous.