Dear Word Detective: In electronics a component that is not part of an integrated circuit is referred to as a discrete component. In something I wrote, it read: “discreet component” (it’s a spellchecker not a meaningchecker). With appropriate discretion, a colleague let me know that it was not a “discreet component” but a “discrete component.” I checked; he’s right. “Discreet” is “circumspect” and “discrete” is “singular.” But, it’s so close, concrete, discrete, secrete, desecrate, the island of Crete. What’s up with that? — Gary Phillips.
Before we get to that, you know what’s really weird? My spellchecker doesn’t like your “spellchecker” and wants to change it to “spell-checker” or “spell checker.” Yet the other day it seemed to think that “abf” standing alone was just fine. Clippy’s revenge?
In any case, I was just sitting on the front porch thinking about your question. (Yes, it’s ten below zero with a nasty wind, but the dogs refuse to use the kitty-litter.*) It occurred to me that the sort of “discreet/discrete” confusion you note might be the best argument for not nuking Facebook (otherwise a very attractive idea). I’ll bet that at least 50 million of its 600 million users have made that mistake (or a similar one, e.g., “your” for “you’re”) in their postings in the past week. But probably at least two or three million of their “friends” have pointed it out to them! Hey, it’s better than nothing.
The fact that one word sounds like another and the two may closely resemble each other in form is often due to nothing more than coincidence; there are, after all, a limited number of sounds that the human mouth can make. In some cases, of course, the words share roots or components, which accounts for their similarity.
In still other cases, however, the two words are essentially one and the same word, with different spellings and meanings because of their separate historical uses. And that’s the case with “discrete” and “discreet.” They’re historically the same word. More specifically, “discreet” and “discrete” are what’s called a “doublet,” two words that come from the same source but arrived in English via slightly different routes and thus differ in form and meaning.
The root of both “discreet” and “discrete” is the Latin verb “discernere,” meaning “to separate, distinguish,” from “dis,” apart, plus “cernere,” to separate. (“Discernere” is also the root of our modern English word “discern.”) The past participle of “discernere,” which was “discretus,” was used in Classical Latin to mean “separate, distinct,” and entered English with that meaning in the form “discrete,” which became common in the 16th century. Two centuries earlier, however, we had adopted another “discrete” from French, with the different meaning of “discerning, prudent.” This “discrete” had apparently been derived from the original “separate” sense under the influence of the late Latin noun “discretionem,” meaning “the act of separating, distinguishing, discerning.” Thus “discrete” in English could, in the 16th century, mean both “separate or distinct” (our modern “discrete”) and “possessing the quality of making distinctions; prudent” (today’s “discreet”).
Making the situation more confusing was the rise of the spelling “discreet” in the late 16th century by popular analogy to the “ee” of native English words such as “feet” and “beet.” For a while the two spellings were used for both words, so “discreet” could mean “separate” and “discrete” could mean “prudent.” By the beginning of the 17th century, fortunately, most people recognized the common spelling differentiation between the two words that we (most of us, anyway) observe today.
That distinction, however, may be fading again. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (the sanest usage guide on the market, available online in full (free) via Google Books) notes that, as of the 1980s, some well-respected newspapers (including the New York Times and Boston Globe) were occasionally using “discrete” where “discreet” was clearly meant and vice versa.
* Subscribers saw this column last January.