The Meaning of Low Key: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of low key? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word low key, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the term low key mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, the term low key, also spelled low-key or lowkey, means understated or on a small scale. This term has been used for a long time, but is popularly used as an adjective or adverb by young people on social media sites like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter nowadays. Many things can be examples of low-key, like low key crushes, a low-key jump, a low-key Friday night, a low-key party, a low-key wedding, a low-key guy, a low-key crush, a low-key end result, and more. You can “lowkey wanna do” something, which means that you are not tied to an idea but are interested in doing it. Low-key is also used in lighting and photography to describe a high lighting ratio of the fill light to create dark colours and a predominance of dark grey tones and areas of contrast.

There are many different languages that have their own translations of low key, but these are more often translated as the word understated since low key is an English slang term. You may notice that many of these translations of low key look and sound similar to the phrase low key. These are called cognates, which are words and phrases in different languages that retain a similar look, sound and meaning. These are often formed when two words have the same root or language of origin. This list of translations of the word understated is provided by Word Hippo.

  •  German – untertrieben
  •  Nepali – बुझ्यो Bujhyō
  •  Bengali – অস্পষ্ট Aspaṣṭa
  •  Croatian – nenametljive
  •  Dutch – ingetogen
  •  Cebuano – dili kaayo
  •  Yiddish – understated
  •  Irish – understated
  •  Maori – tuhinga ka whai mai
  •  Russian – заниженный zanizhennyy
  •  Polish – zaniżone
  •  Latin – understated
  •  Vietnamese – understated
  •  Indonesian – bersahaja
  •  Hindi – understated undairstataid
  •  Kannada – ಇರುವುದಕ್ಕಿಂತ Iruvudakkinta
  •  French – discret
  •  Punjabi – ਘੱਟ Ghaṭa
  •  Norwegian – under
  •  Japanese – 控えめな Hikaemena
  •  Czech – podhodnocené
  •  Italian – sobrio
  •  Ukrainian – занижений zanyzhenyy
  •  Malay – terkurang
  •  Gujarati – અલ્પોક્તિ કરાયેલ Alpōkti karāyēla
  •  Yoruba – labẹ
  •  Swedish – skattade
  •  Marathi – महत्वित Mahatvita
  •  Samoan – lalo ifo
  •  Tamil – குறைத்து Kuṟaittu
  •  Amharic – ያልተነገረ yalitenegere
  •  Malayalam – മനസ്സിലായി manas’silāyi
  •  Filipino – understated
  •  Igbo – n’okpuru
  •  Telugu – పేలవమైన Pēlavamaina
  •  Somali – fahmay
  •  Hmong – understated
  •  Hebrew – מאופק
  •  Greek – υποτιμημένη ypotimiméni
  •  Scots Gaelic – s an Iar-
  •  Thai – ที่ได้กล่าวน้อยไปกว่าความจริง Thī̀ dị̂ kl̀āw n̂xy pị kẁā khwām cring
  •  Portuguese – subestimado
  •  Icelandic – undanskilinn
  •  Farsi – تقلیل یافته
  •  Xhosa – Ngaphantsi
  •  Haitian Creole – discrete
  •  Hungarian – sugároznak
  •  Serbian – подцртано podcrtano
  •  Korean – 절제된 jeoljedoen
  •  Arabic – qalalat – قللت
  •  Afrikaans – onderskat
  •  Chinese – 低调 Dīdiào
  •  Turkish – sade
  •  Finnish – hillitty
  •  Zulu – phansi
  •  Danish – underspillet
  •  Spanish – subestimado
  •  Swahili – imesimama
  •  Urdu – سمجھا

What is the origin of the phrase low key?

Where does the term low-key come from? According to Dictionary, this term has  musical origins, and originally characterized something that has a deeper, more muted, or darker tonal register. In the early 19th century, this term meant of a low pitch. Charles Dickens even used the term in this way in his  1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit in the following quote:

“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.”

The 1857 primer for reading entitled Introductory Lessons in Reading and Elocution used the term low-key to refer to the tone of voice that a person uses when speaking softly or whispering. Hence, it became used to mean quiet, restrained, or modest. The meaning of low-key expanded for something more casual, chill, or easygoing. Then, in  the late 2000s, the term became used to describe something that has a subtlety, low intensity, or moderation. It even became a popular phrase in hip-hop music in the mid-2010s. Chance the Rapper released the 2012 song  “U Got Me F****d Up,” which  contains the line:

 “Coolin’ with Mikey, low-key I rock / Mags on my bike, Tay like he chuck.”

How can the term low key be used in a sentence?

There are many different ways that the term low key can be used in the English language to talk about various different topics. Creating and reading example sentences is a great way to incorporate new words and phrases into your vocabulary. You can also try to make flashcards or quizzes in order to test your knowledge of the definitions of various different words. Try using this new phrase of the day in a sentence today! Below are several different examples of the phrase low key to help get you started. 

Pete Davidson had a low-key proposal to Ariana Grande.

That movie we saw in August was lowkey one of the best movies of the summer. I hope it comes on Netflix soon. I want nothing more than to order a pizza and delight in watching it again.

I low key want to win the photography contest. I know black and white is a tough category, but I really feel like my use of dark tones and streak lighting makes my specs stand out.

What are synonyms and antonyms of low key?

There are many different words and phrases that are synonyms of vice. Synonyms are words and phrases that have the same meaning or definition as another given word or phrase. Learning synonyms is a great way to expand your English language vocabulary and avoid repeating yourself in written and spoken English. This list of synonyms for the phrase low key is provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  tight-lipped
  •  concealed
  •  late-night
  •  down key
  •  non-communicative
  •  conspiratorially
  •  head down
  •  inconspicuous
  •  close-mouthed
  •  lay low
  •  soft-pedaled
  •  not announced
  •  infamous key
  •  low-profile
  •  laying low
  •  private
  •  discreet
  •  discrete time
  •  unostentatious
  •  mellow
  •  inconspicuousness
  •  subdued
  •  quietly
  •  discreetly
  •  behind closed doors
  •  kinda
  •  backstairs
  •  humble key
  •  clammed up
  •  subtle
  •  low-keyed
  •  on the quiet
  •  muted
  •  low-key
  •  bad key
  •  quiet
  •  reticent
  •  laid-back
  •  dirty key
  •  flat key
  •  offstage
  •  reserved
  •  understated
  •  at a standstill
  •  uncommunicative
  •  restrained
  •  downbeat
  •  low visibility
  •  modest
  •  unobtrusive
  •  blue key

There are also numerous different words that mean the opposite of low key. These opposite words are called antonyms, which are also a great way to expand your English language vocabulary. This list of antonyms of low key is also provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  openly
  •  in the spotlight
  •  recognized
  •  blatantly
  •  in public
  •  hundred percent precise
  •  bold
  •  frankly
  •  in the public eye
  •  in the limelight
  •  candid
  •  hundred percent sure
  •  blatant
  •  well-defined
  •  open
  •  established
  •  open and shut
  •  known
  •  straight-up truth
  •  plainly
  •  precise
  •  shown clearly
  •  seen clearly
  •  plain
  •  publicized
  •  high-key
  •  conventional
  •  emphasized
  •  on stage
  •  seen sharply
  •  notorious
  •  high key
  •  hundred percent
  •  communicable
  •  public
  •  communicative
  •  conversational
  •  in broad daylight
  •  widely known
  •  obvious
  •  apparent
  •  unrestrained
  •  candidly
  •  visible
  •  in full view
  •  widely spread
  •  outspoken
  •  in the beam of spotlight
  •  highkey
  •  announced
  •  evident
  •  common

Overall, the word low key means understated and subtle, or to a moderate degree. This is a popular slang term.


  1. Low-key definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary 
  2. Low-key Definition & Meaning | Dictionary 
  3. Translations for understated | Word Hippo 
  4. Low Key synonyms – 227 Words and Phrases for Low Key | Power Thesaurus 
  5. Low Key antonyms – 210 Opposites of Low Key | Power Thesaurus