Secrets and Discretion

Later that morning as I sipped my java (the “tall,” small size) in the shadowy booth I call my office, I mulled over Ms. Khan’s words: “I hope we can count on your discretion.” Sure. I my lips were sealed. Thanks to a little texting, C.J. Chan already knew Ms. Khan’s boss was hankering to be Secretary of State. Secretary, keeper of secrets. Was there a link between discreet and secret?

Turns out there is. Secret comes from Latin sēcrētus originally past participle of sēcernĕre meaning ‘to separate, divide off.’ Speaking of dividing, sēcernĕre can be broken up. Cernĕre all by itself means ‘to separate or distinguish.’ The prefix sē- just means ‘aside.’ Discrete is from Latin discrēt-us ‘separate, distinct’, the past participle of discernĕre meaning ‘to separate, divide.’ I could see a trend here. Yep, it’s the same cernĕre. And the dis- prefix means about the same thing as -: ‘In twain, in different directions, apart, asunder.’ So, discretion and secrecy are pretty close, etymologically, but to come back to ‘separating or dividing off,’ discrete/discreet split into two spellings, the first for the meaning ‘separate, detached from others, individually distinct’ and the second for ‘discerning, prudent,’ which came into English through French.

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3 Responses to Secrets and Discretion

  1. Dana F. Barraclough says:

    Hello Lexie/Judy:   How does the word “discern” fit into this verbal relationship?  Or maybe it doesn’t.

    Dana Barraclough

    >________________________________ >From: Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper >To: dfbarraclough@yahoo.com >Sent: Thursday, November 15, 2012 6:58 PM >Subject: [New post] Secrets and Discretion > >WordSnooper.com posted: “Later that morning as I sipped my java (the “tall,” small size) in the shadowy booth I call my office, I mulled over Ms. Khan’s words: “I hope we can count on your discretion.” Sure. I my lips were sealed. Thanks to a little texting, C.J. Chan a” >

  2. Ah, a discerning reader. Yes, “discern” is, not surprisingly, the same sources as “discrete.” It entered late Middle English via Old French from Latin discernere, from dis- ‘apart’ + cernere ‘to separate.’

  3. Pingback: Lexie Reemerges from the Etymological Underground | Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper

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