Origin of low-key
Words nearby low-key
ABOUT THIS WORD
What else does low-key mean?
Low-key can variously mean “quiet,” “restrained,” “moderate,” or “easygoing.” It can also behave as an adverb meaning “of low or moderate intensity.” Like doing something, but in a “chill” way. For instance: We’re having a party at my place but keeping it low-key so the neighbors don’t complain.
Where did the term low-key come from?
Low-key would appear to have musical origins, characterizing something has a deeper, more muted, or darker tonal register. We can find low-key for “of a low pitch” in the early 19th century. Charles Dickens, for instance, wrote of it that way in his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit:
“She continued to sidle at Mr. Chuffey with looks of sharp hostility, and to defy him with many other ironical remarks, uttered in that low key which commonly denotes suppressed indignation.”
In 1857, the reading primer Introductory Lessons in Reading and Elocution used low-key for the tone of voice that a person uses when speaking softly or whispering. We can see, then, how low-key would, by the 1890s, refer metaphorically to something quiet, restrained, or modest. A century later, low-key expanded for something more casual or easygoing—chill.
By 2010, an Urban Dictionary noted the adverbial low-key, which appears to have been further popularized by hip-hop music in the mid-2010s. Chance the Rapper’s 2012 “U Got Me F****d Up,” for example, contains the lines: “Coolin’ with Mikey, low-key I rock / Mags on my bike, Tay like he chuck.”
How to use the term low-key
In slang, low-key can be an adjective or an adverb. As an adjective, low-key generally describes something as “relaxed” or “simple”—a low-key Friday night might involve some pizza and Netflix. It’s not a big to-do.
Specs is a delight to hang out with! He is a low-key guy, who appreciates the little things in life and knows how to cherish his people! pic.twitter.com/Cks014yykX
— Erie County SPCA, NY (@YourSPCA) March 21, 2017
As an adverb, low-key suggests that something is happening to a moderate degree.
These offseason acquisitions could low-key end up being the best moves of the summer
— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) August 28, 2018
This girl I have a low-key crush on,
broke our streak and viewed my snap after 2 days….
— Umar Shakil (@umxrshk) August 24, 2018
More examples of low-key:
“Pete Davidson shares details about his surprising, low-key proposal to Ariana Grande”
—Scott Baumgartner, Fox News (headline), August 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.
How to use low-key in a sentence
The pulps brought new readers to serious fiction, making it less intimidating with alluring art and low prices.
Fleshy breasts taunted him from low bikini tops, and fleshy thighs sloped from bikini bottoms.Powerful Congressman Writes About ‘Fleshy Breasts’|Asawin Suebsaeng|January 7, 2015|DAILY BEAST
“He has to really stay on the down low, he has to make sure that he blends in,” Ney told the Beast.Abramoff’s Advice for Virginia’s New Jailhouse Guv|Tim Mak, Jackie Kucinich|January 7, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Like him, they identified the Airbus A320 as an airplane extremely well fitted to low cost airline operations in Asia.Annoying Airport Delays Might Prevent You From Becoming the Next AirAsia 8501|Clive Irving|January 6, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Getting men to do their share of care and domestic work is a key overlooked strategy in reducing poverty.
In their shelter, Brion and Ulv crouched low and wondered why the attack didn't come.Sense of Obligation|Henry Maxwell Dempsey (AKA Harry Harrison)
Mr. Jones swung round a large iron key he held in his hand, and light dawned upon him.Elster's Folly|Mrs. Henry Wood
It is low in chronic interstitial nephritis, diabetes insipidus, and many functional nervous disorders.A Manual of Clinical Diagnosis|James Campbell Todd
The lack of bill buyers in foreign countries who will quote as low rates on dollar as on sterling bills.Readings in Money and Banking|Chester Arthur Phillips
Mr. Collingwood, taking the key from his mother, locked the little door in the boarding, after them.The Boarded-Up House|Augusta Huiell Seaman