Should You Be Discreet about Some Things That Are Discrete
or Discrete about Some Things That Are Discreet?
by Owen Fourie
Double vision or one too many? As two students walked towards me, I could see that they were identical. I wasn’t seeing double, and I was perfectly sober. They were obviously twins.
It was when they presented themselves that the real problem arose. One of them spoke and introduced himself as David. He then pointed to his twin and said, “This is David.”
“Hang on!” I said, “You’re twins, and you’re telling me that you have the same name, too?”
“Yes,” from the other twin, “but the spelling is slightly different. I am D-a-v-i-d, and he is D-a-v-i-d-d.”
H’m! Problems ahead, I thought.
It’s similar to the problem that we have with some homonyms.
Take, for instance, discreet and discrete—same pronunciation, markedly similar, and often confused.
How can we use these two adjectives correctly?
We need to understand their background and find a trick to use them without confusion.
Understand their background
The twins, David and Davidd have a Welsh mother who insisted on naming both boys David, and distinguishing one from the other by the double d at the end of one name—in true Welsh style. Consider Dafydd, Gruffydd, and Gwynedd.
The homonyms discrete and discrete come from the same Latin root.
Both words contain the idea of separation. This adds to the confusion now because only one of these words retains that idea.
The origin of discreet and discrete
- Discernere is a Latin word meaning “to separate, to take apart, to distinguish”;
- discernere is the root of our word discern, which has, as one meaning, “to detect or recognize differences”; in other words, “to separate things to see their differences”;
- discreet and discrete, which both contain the idea of separation, do not appear to bear any resemblance to discernere, at first sight;
- discernere has another form in its past participle discrētus. In this word, the connection of discreet and discrete to discernere is obvious.
Confusion and clarity
As alike as the twins were, they had distinct characteristics that were obvious to their friends. For instance, each had a strong point: Davidd could always be trusted with a secret. David had an incisive mind that enabled him to take apart a situation, separating the facts into their proper categories.
At first, perhaps for more than two hundred years, discrete and discreet were not the distinct words that we have today. From today’s standpoint, we see confusion in their usage through the 15th and 16th centuries.
From the first half of the 17th century, these two adjectives were recognized “as separate words with separate meanings.” This is explained in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1994. 349. Print.
Understand the distinctiveness of each word
- This word came into the English language via Old French and conveys the meaning, prudent, careful, tactful, and circumspect. It also speaks of being modest and unassuming, as well as being discerning.
- The important practical distinction for your usage is that this adjective is mainly applied to people, and seldom to things:
Although talkative Davidd was a good friend of the captain of the opposing volleyball team, his teammates knew that he would be discreet when he learned of his team’s plan to capture the opposition’s mascot.
- This word also came into the English language via Old French and conveys the meaning, separate or distinct.
- The important practical distinction for your usage is that this adjective is particularly applied to things and ideas, not to people:
When David was presented with the list of players’ names and preferred positions, he was quickly able to select the best players for the discrete positions.
Understand a trick to use these homonyms correctly
Look at them.
There’s discreet with its two e’s in close conversation about something, probably the r and the t. We’ll never know what they are saying about r and t because they’re being discreet about it.
There’s discrete with its two e’s quite apart from each other, separated by t. I suppose, we’ll simply have to accept that they are discrete letters in this word.
When you see the t separating the e’s, remember that discrete refers to separate things. This will help you not to confuse it with discreet.
“Hey, Davidd, what were you and David talking about over there? What’s that? You’re not saying? H’m! So you’re being discreet, as usual.”
Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are you struggling with homophones or any other aspect of grammar and correct usage? Ask here for clarification.
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