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Lowkey: A Word That's Lowkey Snuck Into Our Vocabulary

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Here's a word that you might not have noticed before: lowkey. A great example is this tweet:

Although of course the picture was originally taken for other reasons, if we assume that the actors in this photo were actually trying to get their waiter's attention, it's a great illustration of what it looks like to do something lowkey. They're not beckoning widely at the imaginary waiter or calling out that something's caught on fire—no, it's not urgent, they're playing it cool, making some eye contact, waiting for the waiter to notice them. 

It's pretty clear where lowkey comes from. Mainstream dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster, have low-key with a hyphen, as in a low-key party.

low–key (adjective)

: quiet and relaxed : not very forceful, emotional, or noticeable

In fact, even Urban Dictionary has "low key" with the same meaning in 2005: 

low key

keep something low key: to not announce it; to have a quiet gathering; opposite of a large party or big group of people; not much emphasis, closely aligned with a normal night out doing the usual stuff.

im going out tonight but it's pretty low key; work tomorrow so tonight's going to be a low key event.
by donjamin June 10, 2005

There's also a "low-key" that's used in photography, where it means "dark, with little or no fill light and high lighting ratio," which may be where "low-key" as in "low-key party" came from (sources are unclear on this though.) 

In any case, there's a clear connection to the new lowkey: meaning-wise, the ideas of quiet/relaxed and kinda/subtly aren't so far apart. But while old low-key is an adjective (a low-key party, that party was low-key), new lowkey is an adverb. It's not even that new—it shows up in Urban Dictionary from 2009

Lowkey
Meaning kinda

I was lowkey excited about the party.
i was kinda excited about the party.

by lUXURyLala August 29, 2009

1) Secretly or discretely

2) Slightly or kinda

"He's moving to Chicago in three weeks but the semester isn't over for another seven weeks. He's lowkey dropping out."

"I didn't think I would be but I'm lowkey sad that my roommate is moving out."

Adverb lowkey is really common online, but I couldn't find anyone analyzing or commenting on it yet, and also it hasn't yet made its way into dictionaries (psst, any lexicographers reading this?). Here are a few more examples from twitter: 

finding nemo is lowkey one of my all time favorite movies 

british people r so intolerant of each other we all lowkey want each other dead

i wish one of my lowkey crushes had a lowkey crush on me so we could like lowkey make out and stuff

When you're lowkey sad af but trying not to care

And unlike the "low-key party" meaning, new lowkey also has an opposite: highkey. Although highkey isn't nearly as common as lowkey, there are still lots of examples. People on Twitter often use it to talk about unrequited crushes:

lowkey in love with you highkey never gonna let you know

lowkey want a relationship highkey don't wanna be disappointed

I'm highkey about you, but trying to be lowkey about you

In a way, it's fitting that lowkey has been around for at least six years but it hasn't been documented outside Urban Dictionary and a few obscure sites. It's just been lowkey waiting for us to notice it.

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How Your Brain Turns Words Into Language
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Language is one of the things that makes us human—so much so that our brains can’t function the same way without it. But when it comes to actually speaking, reading, and listening to words, some parts of our brain do more heavy lifting than others. Life Noggin broke down this process in a recent video.

Before speaking a word you just heard out loud, that information must first travel to your primary auditory cortex, then to a part of the brain called the Broca’s area, and finally to your motor cortex, which makes verbalization possible. The Wernicke’s area of the brain also plays an important role in listening to and processing language: If it’s damaged, the speaker’s ability to form coherent sentences suffers.

Knowing more than one language shapes the brain in totally different ways. According to one recent study, bilingual speakers can perceive and think about time differently, depending on which language they're using. Learning a second language as an adult can also improve mental function and slow brain decline later in life.

For the full scoop on how our brains use language, check out the video below.

[h/t Life Noggin]

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

Synonyms for "love."
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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