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The two words kirai (嫌い) and nikui (憎い) seem to be placed similarly in sentences and the definitions I've seen range from similar to almost identical, depending on the source. It's a bit confusing, but there must be some nuance to the distinction. My best guess is that it's intensity: nikui is stronger than kirai, in the same way that in English 'hate' is a stronger than 'dislike.' Is this correct? If not, what is the difference?

In checking my understanding of the grammar of the words, I also noticed that kirai is an adjectival noun (for a na-adjective) while nikui is an i-adjective.

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I think "dislike" and "hate" covers most of the difference, but in addition, 憎い can only be used if you were wronged, or if the subject did something wrong/bad.

You can 嫌い something for no reason (e.g. バナナが嫌い), but 憎い needs some wrongdoing. If you said バナナが憎い people will wonder what バナナ did to you. It also implies a certain loss of control of your emotions. E.g. you can say 淡々と嫌っていた、静かに嫌っていた but 淡々と憎んでいた、静かに憎んでいた are odd combinations.

You will hear a lot of 嫌い in daily life, but 憎い is almost unheard of. I'd say probably the majority of people have never used this word in a serious way (as in other than joking or when they were children). It's reserved for extreme hatred, like if somebody kills your loved ones, defraud you of your life savings, bullies you severely or something on that line. You should probably avoid using it at all unless you really know this is what you want to say.

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