nitty-gritty: racist term?

Donald M Lance lancedm at MISSOURI.EDU
Thu May 16 02:52:08 UTC 2002

I've always assumed that nitty-gritty was related to nit-picking, both of
them referring to picking nits (lice eggs) out of the scalp.


on 5/15/02 2:07 PM, Laurence Horn at laurence.horn at YALE.EDU wrote:

>>> ... 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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