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Re: Nitwit, nitpick, nitty gritty

Posted by ESC on February 14, 2003

In Reply to: Nitpick - Repost posted by Bookworm on February 13, 2003

: Below is the original post by S. Ryan, with my response. Hope it helps.

: =================================================
: : Pardon the re-posting, but the our seventh grade language class lost its previous posting in the page overload... Ideas on origin and meaning please.
: : : "called on the carpet"... any similar terms with similar meaning from UK?
: : "nitwit" and "nitpick" Are they related? What is a "nit?" Does one have to be a "nitwit" in order to "nitpick"?
: : Again, apologies if this is the wrong forum, but my class loves this site. It has created a lively interest in word and phrase origins. Many thanks for all your help.

: Main Entry: 1nit
: Pronunciation: 'nit
: Function: noun
: Etymology: Middle English nite, from Old English hnitu; akin to Old High German hniz nit, Greek konid-, konis
: Date: before 12th century
: : the egg of a louse or other parasitic insect; also : the insect itself when young

: When the eggs are laid on hair (or fur) it is a tedious job to remove (pick) them off because they adhere to indivdual strands of hair. The term nitpick (below) probably came from the act of picking the nits off hair (or fur), strand by strand. A task which would take hours and require attention to small details.

: Main Entry: nit-pick·ing
: Pronunciation: 'nit-"pi-ki[ng]
: Function: noun
: Etymology: 1nit
: Date: 1956

: : minute and usually unjustified criticism

: As far as being a nitwit to nitpick, that would be judgement call. Some nitpicking may be warranted. When all aspects of a project must run pefectly, with no room for error, one would have to pay very close attention to the details and make sure nothing was overlooked. However, when this is not the case, the nitpicker is seen to be overly uptight about trifles.

NITWIT - "This Americanism, first recorded in 1926, may be a combination of the German 'nicht,' 'not,' and the English wit - 'nichtwit,' 'not with wits, without wits' - corrupted in speech to 'nitwit.' Another theory has 'nitwit' deriving from 'a scornful English imitation' of Dutchmen who answered questions asked in English with the Dutch expression 'Ik niet wiet,' "I don't know.' This, however, would date 'nitwit' to Dutch days in New York and there are thus far no examples of the word's use that far back." "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

A second reference also says "nitwit" came from the German "nit" for "not" plus the English "wit," "hence 'not having any wits." From "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).

A third source dismisses the Dutchman theory and says it probably came from the German "nit" + wit. But it also says, "Alternatively, the 'nit' might also refer to the egg of a louse or other insect. Depending on which choice is made, the literal meaning is that the 'nitwit' either has no brain at all or just an exceedingly tiny one." It gives a different date for the earliest use of "nitwit" - 1922 (Oxford English Dictionary). From "Devious Derivations: Popular Misconceptions and More Than 1,000 true Origins of Common Words and Phrases" by Hugh Rawson (toExcel,, Inc., Lincoln, NE, 1994, 2000)

NITPICKER - " 'She can wel pyke out lyce and nitis,' William Caxton, the first English printer, wrote in a book of fables he translated from the French and published in 1484. But it took centuries before a nitpicker, 'one who picks lice eggs (nits) from one's body or clothes,' changed in meaning to one who looks for and finds small errors (as small as nits), a pedant. I guess that the expression is an Americanism dating to the late 19th century." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

NITTY GRITTY -- "The core, fundamental essence of something. Crossover term." Meaning white people started using the phrase. The author doesn't give an origin of the term. From "Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner" by Geneva Smitherman (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1994).

Another source says: " Getting down to the nitty-gritty is getting down to basic elements. Though first record in the 1960s the expression is probably older; the nitty-gritty of the phrase may be gritlike nits (small lice) that are difficult to remove from the hair or scalp." Actually, a "nit" is a lice egg. From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997).

A third reference sidesteps the whole lice issue and says nitty-gritty is a case of alliteration. "nitty-gritty means the basic elements of a matter, especially of a serious problem or challenge; the harsh truth. 'Get down to the nitty-gritty!' It seems to be a borrowing from black slang and is probably a reduplication of 'grit' and 'gritty.'" From the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

A fourth reference gets down to the REAL nitty-gritty and says: ".Get down to the nitty-gritty, to get down to the hard facts or hard bargaining, 1963, when it was first popularized by black militants in the Civil Rights movement. (It may have referred to the gritlike nits or small lice that are hard to get out of one's hair and scalp or to a black English term for the anus.); it means the same as the English 'to get down to brass tacks' " From "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982).