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“Lie low” is a common English expression, meaning to hide out or keep a low profile. It is often confused with the expression “lay low,” which has an entirely different meaning. The words “lie” and “lay” and their related expressions frequently cause confusion, because the two verbs have similar forms and meanings. The difference between “lay” and “lie” is often ignored in informal uses, such as casual conversation. For formal usage, however, it is important to distinguish between the two words.
The expression “to lie low” means to keep out of sight, metaphorically or literally. The phrase originates with a common combat maneuver in which a person under fire will hide in a low area such as a ditch or trench. A person who is lying low presents less of a target to an enemy and is often shielded by the surrounding terrain. “Lie low” has been in use as an English phrase since the 13th century. It appears in Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, which was first performed around 1599.
The saying “to lay low” is almost as old, but its meaning is virtually the exact opposite of “lie low.” To lay someone low means to knock him down, or, as it was sometimes used in ancient times, to kill him. This can be a helpful reminder of the key difference between “lie” and “lay.” “Lay” requires an object; that is, it is done to someone or something else. For example, a gangster on the run may lie low to avoid detection; when faced with capture, he may lay someone low to get away.
“Lie” and “lay” are often used interchangeably in conversation, to the consternation of English teachers everywhere. A popular belief holds that “lie” always refers to people and “lay” refers only to objects, but this is incorrect. Sources that trace informal usage, such as the online Urban Dictionary, give the same definition to “lay low” as to “lie low.” In casual conversation, most people will understand the phrase to mean “hide out,” no matter which verb is used. In formal usage, however, including business correspondence, writing for publication, and classroom assignments, the distinction between verbs is important.
“Lie low” commonly appears in the dialogue of criminals and outlaws in movies and TV shows. It does have less urgent uses, however. A person who has just gone through a messy breakup or embarrassing situation may be lying low to avoid the questions of curious friends. A public figure may do the same to avoid the press after a scandal. In a world of ever-present electronic social media, simply disconnecting for a while can have the effect of lying low.
It seems to me that there's usually some end point when it comes to "lying low". A celebrity released from rehab may want to lie low until the press loses interest. An escaped criminal might lie low until the police stop investigating. There's usually a condition that must be met before a person decides to become more visible.
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