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low-key

or low·key

[ loh-kee ]
/ ˈloʊˈki /
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adjective Also low-keyed .

of reduced intensity; restrained; understated: Judicial elections used to be low-key affairs, attracting little campaign spending.
(of a photograph) having chiefly dark tones, usually with little tonal contrast (distinguished from high-key).

adverb

Slang. in a restrained or discreet way, or to a limited extent, without trying to attract attention: I low-key wish I was married with three kids, though it is fun to be single.

verb (used with object), low-keyed, low-key·ing.

to make or attempt to make low-key: to low-key the arms buildup.

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Origin of low-key

First recorded in 1890–95
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021

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 the late 2000s, low-key made a perhaps not-so low-key jump: It became an adverb characterizing doing something with a low intensity, moderation, or subtlety.

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.

As an adverb, low-key suggests that something is happening to a moderate degree.

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

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.

Example sentences from the Web for low-key

British Dictionary definitions for low-key

low-key

low-keyed


adjective

having a low intensity or tone
restrained, subdued, or understated
(of a photograph, painting, etc) having a predominance of dark grey tones or dark colours with few highlightsCompare high-key
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
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