Discreet means on the down low, under the radar, careful, butdiscrete means individual or detached. They come from the same ultimate source, the Latin discrētus, for separated or distinct, but discreet has taken its own advice and quietly gone its separate way.



Discreet describes someone or something that is appropriately quiet, prudent, and restrained. If you are wearing a discreet gray suit, it is unlikely that anyone at that business meeting will notice you.

Often people use discreet not only to indicate modesty or carefulness, but also to show a sort of secretiveness along the lines of “You’re going to keep this a secret, right?” If no one in your family knows that you like to dress up as a bear, but then your cousin finds out, you may ask him to please be discreet.


Discrete means separate or divided. A discrete unit is a separate part of something larger. A room is adiscrete space within a house, just as the crankshaft is a discrete part of a car engine.

If something is discrete, it has its own space. An ice cube comes from an ice tray, but it has its own discrete compartment. A student government might have discrete committees for different projects. Don’t confuse discretewith its close cousin discreet, which means “appropriately private.” Billionaire Bruce Wayne, for example, is very discreet about his secret life as Batman. You could say Batman is a discrete, or separate, part of Bruce Wayne’s identity. Anything distinct and separated is discrete.

Today discreet is to be politely private about something and to be aware of consequences if everyone finds out what you’re doing. Be discreet when you eat the lollipop your mom gave you but not your sister, so you don’t have to listen to a tantrum. Wealthy people often try to be discreet with their money, because they don’t want everyone to know they’re rich. When you’re trying to be cool, and keep something quiet, you’re being discreet:

A source said: “Wayne attracts a lot of attention and the millionaires attracted to the area like to be more discreet.” (The Sun)

Sound Level: Quiet, with widely spaced tables allowing for discreetconversations. (Business Week)

Discrete remains closer to its roots, meaning individual, detached, separated:

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. (Salon)

Quantum theory is usually thought of as discrete; after all, that’s what the word “quantum” connotes. (Scientific American)

So last year, when earthquakes were recorded in small, discrete clusters in north central Arkansas, researchers perked up. (New York Times)

Although discreet and discrete have separate (or discrete) meanings, they are often confused. Remember that the “ee’s” in discreet hide together in the middle of the word, but the “t” indiscrete separates them.

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