under- +‎ tone


undertone (countable and uncountable, plural undertones)

  1. An auditory tone of low pitch or volume.
    • 1953, Samuel Beckett, Watt
      Did he and his master converse? Watt had never heard them do so, as he surely would have done, if they had done so. In an undertone perhaps. Yes, perhaps they conversed in undertones, the master and the servant, in two undertones, the master's undertone, the servant's undertone.
  2. An implicit message perceived subtly alongside, but not detracting noticeably from, the explicit message conveyed in or by a book, film, verbal dialogue or similar (contrast with overtone); an undercurrent.
    Antonym: overtone
  3. A pale colour, or one seen underneath another colour.
  4. A low state of the physical faculties.
    • 1905, Medical Review (volumes 51-52, page 171)
      Sedentary occupations are likely to result in undertone, and this undertone not being relieved by physiological means, constipation is a probable outcome.




undertone (third-person singular simple present undertones, present participle undertoning, simple past and past participle undertoned)

  1. To accompany as an undertone.
    • 1941, Emily Carr, Klee Wyck, Chapter 1,[1]
      The Missionary's address rolled on in choppy Chinook, undertoned by a gentle voice from the back of the room which told Tanook in pure Indian words what he was to do.
    • 1951, Arthur Leo Zagat, Drink We Deep in Fantastic Novels Magazine, January 1951, Chapter 7,[2]
      Undertoning the howling siren I was aware of a distant swish, like that of a hurricane’s forerunning wind through palm fronds.
  2. To say or speak in an undertone.
    • 1861, George Meredith, Evan Harrington, Chapter 30, Part 1,[3]
      Evan paid no attention to him, and answered none of his hasty undertoned questions.
    • 1887, R. M. Ballantyne, The Big Otter, Chapter 13,[4]
      At first, when the net was being prepared, those children of the forest had merely stood by and looked on with curiosity. When Blondin and his men rowed out from the shore, letting the net drop off the stern of our boat as they went, they indulged in a few guesses and undertoned remarks.
    • 1984, Greg Bear, Corona, Simon and Schuster, 2000, Chapter 11[5]
      “He handles that pallet like it was a mule,” McCoy undertoned, passing Mason. Mason grinned and fell in behind.
    • 1999, Thomas Sullivan, The Martyring, Crossroad Press, 2015, Chapter 35,[6]
      “How come there’s never any birds in cemeteries?” Skelote undertoned. “Squirrels, rabbits, but no birds.”
  3. To present as less important, noticeable or prominent.
    • 1866, {unattributed}, Littell's Living Age - Volume 88 - Page 427
      Men rarely make this mistake, their habitual blunder being to undertone everything, to make too light of Julia's new frock, and Johnnie's symptoms of measles, and the way they waste things down stairs.
    • 2010, Maddy Myers, “Arisia 2010: the Sexiest of Sci-Fi Cons,” thephoenix.com, 26 January, 2010,[7]
      It’s hard enough to separate the geeks from the creeps at your average Anime con (it’s more of a Venn Diagram than an either/or, really). The task becomes even more difficult at Arisia, where the sexual undertones are … not particularly undertoned.