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They all carry the meaning of "secret" in English, but are there differences in nuance and usage of each of them:

[内]{ない}[緒]{しょ}
[秘]{ひ}[密]{みつ}
[隠]{かく}し[事]{ごと}
[秘]{ひ}め[事]{ごと}

Incidentally, why is it that there is [内]{ない}[緒]{しょ}[話]{ばなし} but you have to add の into [秘]{ひ}[密]{みつ}の[話]{はなし}?

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are you asking why is there a "no" from a grammatical standpoint or are you asking about the etymology as to why naisyobanashi has no "no" or why himitsu no hanashi still has its "no"? –  Mark Hosang Jun 5 '11 at 3:04
    
@Mark etymology, I think. I already know 内緒話 is a set word but I wonder why 秘密+話 is not a set word –  Lukman Jun 5 '11 at 3:09
    
Actually, "秘密話" has a ton of Google hits. –  Amanda S Jun 5 '11 at 3:15
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@Amanda Google hits of 32K show that it's not often used. I only believe in Google hits above 1M :) –  Lukman Jun 5 '11 at 3:17
    
LOL! Fair enough! –  Amanda S Jun 5 '11 at 3:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think that 秘密 has two usages, one of which is interchangeable with 内緒 and the other is interchangeable with 隠し事 or 秘め事. 隠し事 and 秘め事 are synonyms although 秘め事 sounds more poetic to me.

Cases where 秘密 and 内緒 are correct but 隠し事 and 秘め事 are incorrect:

  • That is secret. それは秘密 [内緒] だ。
  • Let’s keep this between us. このことは秘密 [内緒] にしておこう。
  • secretly 秘密で, 秘密に or 内緒で

In this usage, I feel that 秘密 is more formal than 内緒.

Cases where 秘密, 隠し事 and 秘め事 are correct but 内緒 is incorrect:

“Something which is kept secret” is 秘密, 隠し事 or 秘め事, but not 内緒. For example,

  • “He has secret” is 彼には秘密 [隠し事, 秘め事] がある。

As for why 内緒話 is much more common than 秘密話, it’s secret I do not know. It seems to me like one of the many cases where one phrase is used more often than another for no particular reason. By the way, I would not say 秘密話 is incorrect. If someone uses the word 秘密話, I will understand its meaning naturally and it will not strike me as incorrect.

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I realized that 隠し事をする means to do something secretly, and this 隠し事 cannot be replaced by any of 秘密, 内緒 or 秘め事. Now I am not sure if I can really answer the question. I could pile up various examples, but doing so would not explain much about the difference among these words. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 18:17
    
From reading your answer, I have the feeling that while 秘密 is universal, 内緒 is restricted to in-group only. Meaning while I can use "my 秘密, our 秘密, your 秘密, his 秘密", I can only use "my 内緒, our 内緒" but not "your 内緒, his 内緒". Am I getting this right? –  Lukman Jun 6 '11 at 7:00
    
@Lukman: No. I know that I failed to explain the difference clearly, but the combination 内緒が looks always wrong, no matter it is the first person, the second person or the third person. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 6 '11 at 11:36
    
What do you mean by "combination 内緒が"? I was talking about 私の内緒 (OK) vs あの人の内緒 (NOT OK) vs あの人の秘密 (OK) .. –  Lukman Jun 6 '11 at 12:07
    
私の内緒 does not sound right to me. For example, “I have secret” is 私には秘密 [隠し事, 秘め事] がある, but not 私には内緒がある. (I know I am failing to explain it in an understandable way. Someone else should be able to explain it much more clearly!) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 6 '11 at 12:21

I can't speak for the difference in usage, but Naishobanashi is actually one word, hence why you don't need the "no", whereas himitsu no hanashi is phrase. I've confirmed with two two dictionaries that Naishobanashi is indead one word and that himitsu no hanashi is two words.

Edit: if you are going to vote down an answer, it would be appreciated if you mentioned why.

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not me ;) but I think it's because this was mentioned in comments and the asker wants to know about etymology and the difference between each word. –  repecmps Jun 5 '11 at 4:30

I don't know what dictionary you are going by, but most of these words should have clarifying notes as to what they mean beyond "secret".

[内]{ない}[緒]{しょ}, in this case, is the odd one out, and means "confidential" or "off the record"; "between [us]".

[秘]{ひ}[密]{みつ} is closer in meaning to what one in English would understand as a "secret"; the property of something not being told, and not being shown. [秘]{ひ}め[事]{ごと} is similar in meaning, but also carries some pretty specific connotations of being possibly embarrassing but probably not bad, like a secret crush, or such.

[隠]{かく}し[事]{ごと} has a distinct connotation of something that is being actively hidden from others; rather than information that is simply not being disseminated. This form also implies more strongly than [秘]{ひ}[密]{みつ} that the information shouldn't actually be secret.

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