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I don’t think i heard anyone say “Keep this on the down low” before the 1970s. Is that when the idiom arose, or was I merely ignorant? I was hearng “the low down” from forever.
The folks at the sex capitol of the world, Bloomngton, Indiana, say there is a sexual meaning to that idiom, to whicI had been previously unaware (http://kinseyconfidential.org/down-low/)
Both “Keep this on the down low, but…” “What the low down on Bill’s new girlfriend?” suggest speaking at low volumes, but “It’s a low down dirty shame” seems to totally unrelated.
What’s the story here, on the genesis of “low diwn” and “down low”?
I think a lot of the slang and slang phrases that are now in common usage throughout the country were sort of regional usages (and limited in range), but later became popularized into mainstream language through books, TV, movies, music etc. In the case of “low down” as an adjective, I suspect it comes from the South.
“low down” as in “That was a very low down thing to do” indicates a cruel, heartless, insensitive or inhumane action, as in low standards of morality.
So if a poor family is evicted in the middle of the winter, that’s a low down, dirty shame. If I get struck by lighting, that’s just a shame, and maybe a tragic end. It wouldn’t be low down because it’s no one’s fault.
“What’s the low down on Bill’s new girlfriend?” Then “low down” sort of functions like a noun, right? Meaning the most basic or most essential facts and information.
It was on Law & Order that I first heard of a sexual meaning for “down low”; black men who were “on the down-low” were having sexual relations with each other, although they stoutly maintained that they were not homosexual. I suppose they insisted that because they thought of themselves as manly friends, not fairies; but I’m only guessing. Outside of that one episode I’ve never heard that sense of the term, and I suspect that its equation with “QT” is just a confusion or corruption of “low-down”.
I couldn’t swear whether or not “low-down” in the other two senses—the adjective meaning “contemptible” and the noun meaning “reliable gossip, “bottom line”—are related. Maybe the adjective is older and the noun started as gossip (the worst thing someone could say about a low-down scoundrel) and took on the other meaning. But that’s strictly guessing. And the Online Etymology Dictionary says originally “lowdown” meant “humble”, back in the late 1800s, so my guess looks pretty doubtful.