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 sē-: ‘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.