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Origin of high-key
Words nearby high-key
Definition for high-key (2 of 2)
Origin of high key
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”)
Well…I just paid off one of my student loans. It wasn’t the big one but it’s something. I’m highkey happy too.
— [redacted] (@_mister151) November 2, 2018
Im highkey pissed at my mom
— woo love club (@parkseonghwaa) November 16, 2018
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
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.