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high key

adverb compounding, analogy
to an extreme extent – in an unabashed, readily observable nature.
 
The phrase high key is a compound formed by analogy with the term low key, which has been in use since the start of the twentieth century. Low key is typically used to refer to things that are of low intensity or visibility; it is likely that it originated by metaphorical extension from either low key music – which sounded quiet – or low key photographs, which were dark-toned with little contrast, both of which imply a low degree of a certain quality, whether it be loudness or vividness of color. Speakers of English coined the word high key as an analogous opposite to low key; however, low key originally functioned as an adjective and high key only functions as an adverb. Before high key came into use, low key was converted from an adjective meaning “of low intensity” to an adverb meaning something close to “slightly” or “inconspicuously” by younger generations. One might say, “I low key want to eat some ramen” if one wants to eat ramen but does not want to be open about it, or if one only slightly wants to eat ramen. From this form of low key, high key developed, which explains its lack of an adjectival form.
Etymology : from a compounding of high & key, likely due to analogy with low key. High from Old English. Key also from Old English.
Source : “He is high key gunning for an officer position, it’s actually disgusting.” (friend at Jones College, 11/24/19)
Last modified: 11 December 2019


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