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On the Down Low

Dear AC,

What is the origin of "on the down low" - purportedly a slang phrase that originated among African-Americans. I understand that it means a gay man who is married to a woman (for appearances) and has hidden gay affairs. This would seem to describe the recent national news about a certain governor yet I never heard the phrase used in any stories. (However, there is some dispute about the affair although he seemed to admit to it.) Thanks.

Donald - wondering in the Midwest

Dear Donald,

While I wasn't able to turn up any etymological information on this term, it most likely evolved from the more familiar low-down. In the 1800s, the original low-down was an adjective meaning low and despicable.

EXAMPLE: My ex-boyfriend Ted is a low-down rat!

In the early 20th century, it became the word for inside information that most Americans are familiar with.

EXAMPLE: So Caroline, what's the low-down on Ted? Is he dating anyone new?

In the early nineties, the words were flipped and usually appeared in the phrases on the down-low or keep it on the down-low. With the word reversal came a meaning reversal - from a secret revealed to a secret kept. According to Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, down-low originated among African Americans, though it is now used widely by many groups.

EXAMPLE: I'm planning to slash Ted's tires tonight, but please keep it on the down-low!

While this new term often referred to sex and cheating, as in R. Kelly's song Down Low (Nobody Needs to Know), that infidelity was heterosexual. The newest use of this word is different. Men on the down-low (also on the low, or on the D.L.) are those secretly engaged in homosexual activities while married to or romantically involved with women. Most deny being gay and limit their relationships with men to casual sex. The word is primarily used about African Americans, though there are undoubtedly men of every race who do this. In the 1950s, in the closet described men who kept their homosexuality a secret (whether they were married or not). This term was used primarily about white men and is still current, though now used more in writing than conversation.

The down-low has been something of a hot topic lately, partly because many believe that these secret sexual encounters are the driving force behind the high rate of HIV infection among African American women. However, it's worth noting that while everyone is talking about it, most of the information is anecdotal and there is no solid evidence that this is a widespread practice. The Center for Disease Control acknowledges that a woman's risk of contracting HIV is increased if her partner is on the down-low, but notes that there are many factors that affect the spread of AIDS.

As for why this phrase has not appeared in many mainstream news stories about New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey's recent confessions, on the down-low is still considered slang. It's therefore unlikely to make it onto the front page of the New York Times anytime soon, except in quotation marks (though the NYT Magazine did an article on the phenomenon last summer). However, I found "down-low" (in quotations) used in articles about the married governor's admission of his gay affair in the Philadelphia Daily News, MSNBC.com and many other websites, so it has definitely made its way into popular culture.

Your pal,

A. C. Kemp

August 19, 2004

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