high-key

[ hahy-kee ]
/ ˈhaɪˈki /

adjective

(of a photograph) having chiefly light tones, usually with little tonal contrast (distinguished from low-key).

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Origin of high-key

First recorded in 1915–20

Definition for high-key (2 of 2)

high key

noun Movies.

a style of lighting that is bright, even, and produces little contrast between light and dark areas of the scene.

Origin of high key

First recorded in 1915–20
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2020

ABOUT THIS WORD

What else does high-key mean?

In slang, high-key is the opposite of the more commonplace low-key, or “secretive” or “restrained.” So something high-key is “intense” and “out in the open.” It’s often used as an adverb for “very,” “really,” or “clearly.”

Where does high-key come from?

High-key is a technical photography term for particularly bright lighting style. It’s been in use since the early 1900s. Before then, in the world of music, sound, and public speaking, high-key described notes with a high pitch, with evidence dating to the 1800s.

These days, the slang high-key is used a bit differently, though it may draw from notions of “bright” and “pitch” as in the term’s historical senses. First came the slang low-key, for “casual” or “on the down-low,” in the late 2000s. It was being used as an adverb—e.g., “I’m low-key into her,” to express mild interest—by the 2010s in hip-hop lyrics.

High-key functions as a natural opposite to low-key: characterizing something done with intensity, energy, or calling attention to itself.

An early instance comes in the 2013 song “3 The Hardway” by rapper Young Roddy:

Spend on smoke what these ni**as spend on for the whole Key

Low key, or High key

Drop a piano on your head if you try me

Or Young Roddy fly in the Maserati

It was likely Drake, as with so many slangs terms in the 2010s, who helped popularize high-key on Nicki Minaj’s 2014 track “Only”:

Yeah, low-key or maybe high-key

I been peeped that you like me, you know?

How is high-key used in real life?

High-key is common in hip-hop lyrics, even as the title of some songs, such as R&B artist’s Che Ecru’s 2016 “HIGHKEY.”

But it has spread to mainstream youth slang, where it can be used as an adjective for “intense” or “overt” (e.g., “The party was high-key”) or as an adverb for “a lot,” “very much,” or “obviously” (e.g.,I’m high-key about this new Ariana Grande single”)

More examples of high-key:

“The place I lived up in Georgia in high school—I was in the forest…Like high-key, middle of nowhere, no cars type shit. It was really peaceful and serene…”
—Chester Watson quoted by GFarmaNews, October 2018

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

British Dictionary definitions for high-key

high-key

adjective

(of a photograph, painting, etc) having a predominance of light grey tones or light coloursCompare low-key (def. 3)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012