View synonyms for low-key


or low·key

[ loh-kee ]


  1. of reduced intensity; restrained; understated:

    Judicial elections used to be low-key affairs, attracting little campaign spending.

  2. (of a photograph) having chiefly dark tones, usually with little tonal contrast ( high-key ).


  1. 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.
  1. to make or attempt to make low-key:

    to low-key the arms buildup.



  1. having a low intensity or tone
  2. restrained, subdued, or understated
  3. (of a photograph, painting, etc) having a predominance of dark grey tones or dark colours with few highlights Compare high-key

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Word History and Origins

Origin of low-key1

First recorded in 1890–95

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Example Sentences

However, as she feared, The Bell Jar appeared to indifferent notices and the launch—which Ted attended—was rather low-key.

Later that night, this low-key man went out on stage with otherworldly energy.

We prefer the low key spots, where the eating is as cheap as it is delicious.

The Pass is the dressed down, low key spot, while The Provisions is more formal.

In person, Ligety is fairly humble, and low-key—almost enigmatic.

Voices at last, low and muffled, voices pitched in a low key, men talking as in deep confidence.

The girls sit down all the time in a row, and wave their hands and arms about and sing in a low key and in frightful discord.

They continued the conversation, turned into this ominous channel, in the same low key.

"In health you may dash the Potage with a little juyce of Orange" is in the same low key.

He used it to keep his voice in a low key and to measure his words on the great subject.


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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


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.