nitty-gritty: racist term?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed May 15 19:07:54 UTC 2002

>>... UK police are not allowed to use the term 'nitty gritty' because it
>>allegedly originally meant the waste at the bottom of a slave ship once
>>the slaves were taken off.
>Another silly baseless etymythology, I think.
>Before further examination of this expression's amazing 250-year
>politically-charged history, let's see a single citation from before 1950.
Indeed.  Here's a clip from Michael Quinion's column (see URL below).
Of course this was before we'd been able to file it under etymythology   ;-)

World Wide Words -- 4 Nov 00

Q. Any ideas on the origins of the expression 'nitty-gritty'? I
heard today a rather horrible suggestion that it referred to the
debris left in the bottom of slave ships after their voyages, once
the slaves remaining alive had been removed. [Helen Norris]

A. This belongs in the same line of folklore which holds that a
'picnic' was a slave lynching party. There is a very slight link,
in that 'nitty-gritty' was indeed originally a Black American
English expression. However, it dates only from the 1950s.

John Lighter, in the _Random House Historical Dictionary of
American Slang_, records the first example from 1956: "You'll find
nobody comes down to the nitty-gritty when it calls for namin'
things for what they are". As it is here fully formed, and has the
now customary sense of the fundamental issues or most important
aspects of some situation, it had by then probably already been in
use for some while. But it is inconceivable that it should have
been around since slave-ship days without somebody writing it down.

Its origins are elusive. The most usual explanation is that it is a
reduplication - using the same mechanism that has given us 'willy-
nilly', 'namby-pamby' and 'itsy-bitsy' - of the standard English
word 'gritty'. This has the literal sense of containing or being
covered with grit, but figuratively means showing courage and
resolve, so the link is plausible.

[follow-up, 11/11/00]

NITTY-GRITTY  Following last week's Q&A piece on this phrase, J D
Hamilton wrote: "I am 81 years old and I have been hearing the
words 'nitty gritty' since early childhood in western Canada. It
was always 'down to the nitty gritty' or close to bedrock and meant
facing reality and coping with it". This is interesting, since it
contradicts the usual view that it derives from 1950s black usage.
In 1974, a writer in _American Speech_, the journal of the American
Dialect Society, also claimed memory of the term from the 1920s,
but in the southern states of the US. I've added some more
information to the archived copy of the piece, which is on the
Words site at <>.

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