< Ups and Downs, Highs and Lows
By Andrew Smith
11 March 2023

And now, Words and Their Stories, from VOA Learning English.

Up and down. High and low. These short words describe more than just directions. They also connect to our feelings and experiences. In this episode of Words and Their Stories, we'll start down low and end up high.

Many cultures around the world connect the words "low" or "down" with something negative. This is because our minds can easily connect low places, like the floor or the ground, with dirt.

FILE - In this April 10, 2014 photo, people ride up and down the escalators inside the Sambil mall in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
FILE - In this April 10, 2014 photo, people ride up and down the escalators inside the Sambil mall in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

So, when someone asks, "How low can you go?" they are expressing their opinion that another person's behavior is bad in a moral or ethical sense.

If you are down and out, that means you are poor, without enough money for the things you need.

And if you are down in the dumps, that means you feel unhappy or depressed.

Next, let's look at two "down" expressions that relate to either getting or keeping information. They sound similar but have different meanings. The following exchange uses one of these expressions:

A: So, did Maria tell you anything?

B: She did! But keep this on the down-low—she's going to quit her job next month.

A: Oh my gosh! Wow—that is big news.

B: I know, but she doesn't want anyone else to know.

A: No worries. I'll keep it on the DL.

To keep something on the down-low means to keep information secret. Speakers often say the shortened form, "on the DL," when using the expression.

On the other hand, if you want the low-down on a situation, that means you want to get the information. For example:

A: Did Jane give you the low-down on the budget?

B: Yeah. She said they can't afford to do a summer project this year.

So, getting the low-down means you are getting information. Keeping it on the down-low means you are keeping information away from people.

Moving up

Now, let's move up to a few expressions with "high."

Imagine you are driving in an area with a lot of traffic. You see a car waiting to turn onto your street, so you stop and let that car make the turn. But this makes the car behind you slow down. The driver of this car now honks the horn for a long time, leans out the car window, and shouts at you.

At this point, you have a choice. You can also shout in return, or you can take the high road and not answer. To take the high road means to behave in a way that is morally correct, even when other people around you are not behaving well.

Our next expression relates to time. Sometimes there are things that people should do, but they wait longer than necessary to do them. By waiting, they sometimes create problems or make things worse.

In these situations, we can use the phrase "it's high time" to say that people have delayed doing something for too long.

For example, someone can say, "It's high time you cleaned up that apartment. It is so dirty!"

Next, we look at the word highfalutin. If you say someone is highfalutin, that means you think the person is overly fancy or pompous. Highfalutin is usually a negative way of referring to ways of speaking and behaving.

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American English, the first known use of this word was in 1839 in the United States.

Finally, you can end on a high note by connecting to another Words and Their Stories program. There, you can learn more expressions about highs and lows.

Then, give yourself a high-five for reading and listening to this week's Words and Their Stories.

I'm Andrew Smith.

Andrew Smith wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

negative –adj. not good; the opposite of positive

honk –v. to make a loud sound often with the horn of a car

fancy –adj. uncommon, costly, or fashionable

pompous –adj. behaving in a way that appears to show a person thinks they are better than others

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