The Ins and Outs of “High” and “Low”

By Mark Nichol

High and low are such versatile terms that several hundred compound words employ one or the other — and one idiomatic adverb consists of both: “high and low,” a synonym for “everywhere.” (“I’ve looked high and low for my new shoes.”)

They usually come first in compounds (“high chair,” “low blow”), but sometimes they trail another word (“contact high,” “record low”). The compound can be open (“high jump,” “low bid”), hyphenated (high-grading, low-minded), or closed (highlight, lowland). A compound can differ in firm depending on the part of speech (low-down as an synonym for contemptible; lowdown as another meaning for “inside information”). High or low can be part of a compound literal (“high heels,” “low score”) or figurative (“high horse, low-key).

Sometimes, a nonstandard spelling is acceptable. For example, a high hat is a pair of cymbals facing each other on a pole that a drummer clashes together with a foot pedal; it’s also spelled hi-hat. And hi-fi is a slang abbreviation of “high fidelity”; by extension, lo-fi refers to the opposite extreme of audio quality. “High tech,” short for “high technology,” is sometimes spelled hi-tech, and the antonym may be altered accordingly (lo-tech).

Hijack, the verb referring to commandeering of or stealing from an airplane or a ground vehicle (it can also be a noun), has an alternate spelling of highjack, but that’s rare. On the other hand, hijinks is the variant of “high jinks,” a synonym of antics.

Highfalutin is a rare instance of a word with a clipped ending suggestive of a drawl, considered a regular form despite its informal appearance. This synonym for pretentious is even sometimes spelled hifalutin.

Check the dictionary when using phrases including high or low to confirm or correct your guesses not only about whether the preferred spelling is the full word or the short form but also whether they’re part of an open, hyphenated, or closed compound. Hyphenation, especially, can be tricky: High-and-mighty, for example, is an adjective that is hyphenated even after a noun or a pronoun (“He’s been all high-and-mighty since his promotion”), and “low earth orbit” has no hyphen, even though low and earth (which, in addition, is not capitalized in this usage) modify orbit.

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2 Responses to “The Ins and Outs of “High” and “Low””

  • Stephen Thorn

    While we were working with these words it might have been good to also define “high” and “low” as words and specify their meanings. I frown every time I hear “high” used as a replacement for “tall,” as in “That tree is fifty feet high.” To me that always brings to mind an image of said tree floating fifty feet off the ground, rather than an indicator of measurement from the ground to the top of the tree.

  • Mark MacKay

    Don’t forget the blueberries. Raised in Salem, MA my mother would refer to a person of dubious quality as “low bush.” “High bush” was reserved for anyone acting too self important.

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