What does “on the down low” mean? You may have heard this common English slang phrase, or its acronym, “on the D.L.” “On the down low” has come to mean anything that is secret or should be kept from common knowledge. It can refer to a wide range of possible activities, from a surprise party to a criminal act. It is related to the older phrases “under the table,” “under the radar” and “keep a low profile,” which mean the same thing. “On the down low” has just recently come into common English usage in the 1990s and 2000s.
The phrase originated in the urban African-American community, where it had a very different meaning. “On the down low” was originally used to describe black men who met other men for sex without telling their wives or girlfriends. When they talked about it, they would say they were seeing someone or looking for a quick fling “on the down low.” The phrase usually did not apply to extramarital relationships with women.
When language professionals, anthropologists and other culture vultures discovered this original meaning, they were fascinated. It seemed to reveal a hidden gay subculture within the larger urban black subculture, and in the early 2000s, many articles and dissertations were written about the concept. Black men who had affairs on the down low, however, disagreed with this assessment. Many did not and do not consider themselves gay, or even bisexual. This led to the creation of a new phrase, “men who have sex with men,” distinct from those who feel themselves part of the larger gay community.
Thus, the phrase “on the down low” has come to symbolize the broadening of the American sexual landscape. The terminology of the 20th century can no longer contain all of the various sexual cultures that now exist. Old phrases gain new meanings, and new phrases have to be invented. So if someone tells you they want to do something “on the down low,” make sure you understand the context in which they’re using it.