Saturday, October 1, 2011

Word Tidbits: Discreet versus Discrete

I doubt most people realize that discrete and discreet are discretely separate words. Today I thought I’d explain the slight difference between the two adjectives and clear up any confusion.

Discreet refers to cautious or tactful action. The word generally applies to something secret, such as a discreet rendezvous, or that you wish kept quiet, like dropping a discreet word in someone’s ear to let them know they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe after a trip to the facilities. Off the top of my head I can think of only one way I’ve seen discrete used regularly: to follow someone at a discrete distance.

While at first blush the two words look interchangeable in fact the latter implies not secrecy but separation. Discrete means something that is isolated or distinct from something else. Much of the confusion between the two words arises from the fact that people who follow someone at a discrete distance are usually trying to be discreet. Were they not they would simply travel with the person they’re trailing in the first place, thus eliminating the need for discretion entirely.

In that last sentence we find the rest of the reason that people conflate discreet and discrete. The noun form of both words is identical. It’s no wonder people don’t realize they are two discrete terms. Next time I'll post a difference on two more discrete words: confuse and conflate. Be discreet and don't spread it around, okay?