July 23, 2004

On the DL

A story by Kia Gregory in PW features an expression that was new to me. It's variously written in the article as "on 'da low'", "on the low", and "on the DL". The modifier version is "DL", as in "some DL men", "there are no DL signs", etc. Gregory defines being "on the low" as "having girlfriends, but sleeping with men on the side".

At first I thought that "DL" was an acronym for "da low", so that "on the DL" would be a covert double determiner; but in fact "DL" represents "Down Low". There's a book title that is obviously a version of this same expression: "On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men", and several web sites with discussions of the behavior involved.

Sometimes "on the down low" seems to refer to covert sex of whatever kind. For example, there's another book "Down Low, Double Life" in which the expression seems to refer to heterosexual infidelity.

At least some examples of "on da low" in song lyrics also seem to be associated with covert heterosexual relations:

meet me at da southside
let yah know imma hit that
make sure dat youre daddy just dont know
ill put u in da hoodbug
u no wat we doin cause
we be eatin on da low

meet me at da southside
baby we can go hide
knowin dat muh boys goin have my bakk
only at tha southside girl

Anyhow, the bisexual version of DL was featured on Oprah back in April, so I'm just out of the cultural loop altogether, it seems.

An idea about where the expression might come from is suggested by this usage, in Willie Perdomo's 1996 Poet in Harlem:

That night he went looking for
a poem
he left his electric typewriter humming
on the kitchen table
and ran out to the wide
sidewalks of Lenox Avenue

Aunties sat on their stoop box seats
mixing cheers and gossip
beers on the down low
With arms thrown to the sky
I celebrate a touchdown

This suggests the way that people hold a beer privately in public, so to speak. But whatever the source, the expression is new to me.

[Update: I'm convinced by Eric Bakovic's suggestion that "on the DL was originally a general term for covert activity. But reader Andy Carvin emailed some evidence that the more specific sexual identity meaning that Arnold Zwicky discussed has been around in popular culture for at least a decade:

Last year in Washington DC a local tv news show did a series on "down low" culture amongst African American men who are married but are secretly bisexual. I thought I'd never heard the term before until I was watching the Top 100 Videos of All Time countdown on VH1, and they played "What a Man" by En Vogue and Salt 'n Pepa. My wife and I both noticed the following lyric:

And although most men are ho's he flows on the down low Cuz I never heard about him with another girl

The song is from 1994, give or take.

But here are the lyrics to that song, and you could also understand them as meaning that the guy is discreet in his connections with other women, if Eric is right. Or you could connect the same lines, as Andy did, to the female version of the attitude expressed in the PW article that started this out for me:

"I'm not with another woman," he says as a consolation to the women he dates. "I'm not being a dog. I'm just fulfilling my needs."
Eventually Will hopes to find Ms. Right, get married and have kids--ideally a boy and a girl. But with one condition.

"I would never cheat on my wife with another woman," he says, "but I have to have my best friend on the side."


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 23, 2004 03:49 PM