Which is the most popular meaning of the commonly used phrase "Best kept secret"?

  • "It's best if this is kept secret, though other options are viable"?
  • "This is the secret that is kept best of all secrets."?

...or maybe some other?

  • Can you provide any example in which both intrepretations are actually possible? "X is best kept secret" is quite obviously 1, whereas 2 would be "X is a best-kept secret". I see no overlap. – RegDwigнt Oct 18 '12 at 9:07
  • You've thrown three words together stripped of all context. As such, it's quite likely that you've added some potential ambiguity. Usually, I think, when you hear this phrase, it means your first interpretation, but that doesn't mean one couldn't use the same three words to express the second sentiment. – J.R. Oct 18 '12 at 9:12
  • @RegDwighт: As you wish: "The Best Kept Secret features cotton fabrics Hoffman Moda", "The LateRooms.com Best Kept Secret Awards 2012 go to...", "Best Kept Secret: A Novel by Amy Hatvany", "The 11 Best-Kept-Secret Careers are: ..." These are all first page hits on Google, and I didn't find even one where I could discern the meaning from the context. The Wikipedia page (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_Kept_Secret) has a long list of titles and names using this phrase but no "original meaning". – SF. Oct 18 '12 at 9:45
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    I can't parse the first one; the fourth is quite clearly not about careers made out of keeping secrets, but about careers that should be kept secret; and the second and third are ambiguous (the lack of a hyphen makes me lean towards the first option, but further context is needed to be completely sure). More to the point, if we can't even discern the meaning from the context, then we certainly won't be able to discern the meaning by throwing all context away. Which is what your question does. It's like asking whether "go" means "change your position" or "a board game". Impossible to answer. – RegDwigнt Oct 18 '12 at 9:55
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    @RegDwighт: Yes, but I specified "common phrase". In English many phrases have a very common primary meaning and quite uncommon secondary. In your example, "walking" is the common meaning of "go". Another example could be "loose change", it means "coins" in its common meaning and is only occasionally used as "imprecise modification". – SF. Oct 18 '12 at 10:21

In the first two examples you listed in your comment, I'd say that Best Kept Secret is idiomatic. It would be akin to saying something like, a little-known gem, off the beaten path.

So, if I heard

Joe's Pizzaria is the best kept secret in Little Italy.

I'd interpret that to mean that Joe's:

  • is highly regarded
  • is frequented by the locals in the area
  • doesn't get much of its clientele from tourists
  • might look rather nondescript from the outside

But it doesn't necessarily imply that Joe's wouldn't appreciate added business, or that locals wouldn't recommend the establishment. In fact, in the scenario I'm painting, if I were to ask a local, "Where's a good place to eat around here?" then he might respond, "You should try Joe's – it's a little hole in the wall, just up the street. Best kept secret in the neighborhood."

Unlike trade secrets, which are kept close to the vest, best kept secrets are often openly shared. In other words, it's a quaint expression, with a hint of oxymoron.

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The common phrase "best kept secret" usually means "the secret that is kept best of all secrets."

The second interpretation is valid as well (albeit less common as a phrase)

EDIT: a good indication would be if the entire phrase is treated as a noun "The best kept secret in this company is..." or as a partial sentence "The ... is best kept secret"

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  • @downvoter, please explain your downvote so I can better myself. – Nir Levy Oct 23 '12 at 11:12

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