I am old now and can no longer keep up with young folks’ slang. What does “low-key” mean to you? The other day, I was chatting with friend of mine who is a few years younger, and he said something along the lines of, “I guess you’re just kind of low-key, then, huh?”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, because I literally did not know what he meant. How can a person be low-key? To me, the word describes an environment or a mood, such as a low-key atmosphere at a small dinner party. My initial thought, however, was to assume that he had meant to say “down low” — a slang term that refers to someone or something discreet. After all, the context of the conversation was us remarking about how I hadn’t been around much lately. But I asked my friend to explain what he meant anyway, and all of a sudden he was at a loss. “Low-key, man, it means, like… low-key.”

Since that didn’t help, I did some fieldwork and asked around: “Can you use ‘low-key’ in a sentence?” The answers I got surprised me.

“She’s a low-key person, really chill.”

“We never see them around anymore, they’re so low-key.”

“We thought he was quiet but he’s actually low-key funny.”

Apparently, “low-key” can mean many different things in different contexts! A person’s personality can be low-key if they are quiet, modest, and laid-back. This the slang definition given by some of the dictionaries I consulted. But a person’s behavior can be low-key as well, if, as one friend put it, “they’re part of a group, but you never actually know where they are and they don’t show up to things.” And then there’s the peculiar adverbial “low-key” — to have some quality secretly or unexpectedly. Your friend who wears a button-down and slacks to parties, who seems never to smile if he can help it? Turns out he has a razor-sharp wit and uses it sparingly: he’s low-key funny. (This is one of the definitions given on Urban Dictionary.)

We can take this even further, though. Scouring the Internet, I came across a sentence quoted from a teenager’s tumblr: “Why does he low-key look like this otter?” in reference to a man who, well, resembled an otter. So does he secretly look like an otter? Was the resemblance unexpected or just slight? Not quite, my friend declared; it means “he really looks like it, but the person saying it just wanted to add some pop culture flair; actually here the ‘low-key’ doesn’t mean anything at all.” And the irony is extended when people use “high-key” — yes, you read that right — as in, “Okay, high-key I think you’re hella cool.” In other words, “I have done some amount of internal processing and have concluded that you are a fantastic person, only I want to diffuse the potential awkwardness of saying so by using this stupid slang intensifier.”

And yet, another friend claims, “nobody uses ‘high-key’ anymore.” This doesn’t surprise me; slang changes all the time, and it changes quickly. Nobody seems to be aware of the verb definition of “low-key” any longer. Similarly, the use of the phrase “down-low” to refer to closeted gay men who put on a hetero front came and went quite quickly; by the time I first heard it, it was already being used more generally to refer to anything kept secret.

On that note, there is something I do like to keep “on the dl” — my birthday. I don’t announce it, and I don’t like to celebrate it. My housemates had a vague idea of when it was, and the other day they threw me a very low-key surprise party! It was, as a matter of fact, not on the right day (hence the surprise). But since they tried, and since my birthday doesn’t even really matter to me, and since there were cupcakes, it was all rather enjoyable, and I appreciated the gesture very much.

It’s been a very enjoyable week overall, I must say. I have spent really quality time with friends and family (my parents drove up for a visit and we discovered a nice Italian restaurant nearby), and I have spent a lot of time baking (cookies and a persimmon cake with fresh persimmons from my parents’ backyard!). I’ve made some good progress at school, with productive meetings with my adviser and some headway on a small research project that I hope to turn into my Master’s thesis. I also won a prize at a department social for a funny bit of interactive art I created to mock online course evaluations. Lastly, Back to the Future Day was this week, and I watched the iconic movie with my housemates (although we watched the first movie instead of its sequel, which is somewhat ironic).

Nothing I do these days is very ostentatious or compelling in any way. I’m just a student and I do student-y things, with enough time in between to have a moderate social life. But I’m very thankful, around this time of year, every year, for the low-key ways I’ve been able to experience blessings in my life. There was nothing in particular that moved me to even write this blog post. I just wanted to say: thanks for reading, thanks for taking some time on your journey to join me on mine, and may your future be full of wonderful, low-key surprises.


pearlclutchingWord of the Day: pearl-clutching (n. or adj.) is a delightful bit of slang that I encountered for the first time last week. But I am sadly behind the bandwagon on this one, seeing as according to this neat little Slate article, use of the phrase in online media peaked in 2007 and has since jumped the shark (or become a cliché). Anyway, to “clutch one’s pearls” is to be overly shocked and offended at something that is generally considered commonplace or mundane. It’s usually used to mock conservative or closed-minded people: think old white ladies twisting their hands into their pearl necklaces at the mention of public nudity, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, or a Jewish president. So, you can deride the pearl-clutching talk show hosts who air their alarmist views about our country’s impending moral apocalypse, or you can dismiss your grandmother’s reaction to your new haircut as mere pearl-clutching.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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