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Re: Brass tacks & nitty gritty

Posted by James Briggs on July 17, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Brass tacks posted by Phil on July 17, 2003

: Good question to which I too would like to know the answer. I'd also be interested to hear where 'getting down to the nitty-gritty' comes from. I heard on the radio a few months back that it was something to do with the Atlantic Slave Trade, but the speaker did not want to go into detail on a family programme ... (BTW, sorry to hijack).

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: : Where did this saying come from? As in "getting down to the brass tacks".... to get to the basics of something.

We've discussed these before. Type 'nitty' into the search box at the top - the same with 'tacks' - not at the same time!
As far as Nitty Gritty is concerned, here's what I gathered, in part from this Forum:

To get down to the nitty gritty of something is to get to its basics. The origin here is somewhat unpleasant and a little unexpected. It seems to derive from the nits found in unclean pubic hair plus the tiny, gritty pieces of dried faeces found in unwashed peri-anal hair.
The Dictionary of Popular Phrases says: "Let's get down to the (real) nitty-gritty". Idiom. Meaning, 'let's get down to the real basics of a problem or situation' (like getting down to brass tacks).
Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood columnist, in her book ?Scratch an Actor? says of Steve McQueen: 'Without a formal education - Steve left school when he was fifteen - he has invented his own vocabulary to express what he means. His "Let's get down to the nitty-gritty" has gone into the American language.'
All she meant, I feel, is that McQueen popularized the term, for it is generally held to be a Negro phrase and was talked about before the film star came on the scene. It seems to have had a particular vogue among Black Power campaigners c1963, and the first OED Supp. citation is from that year. In 1963, Shirley Ellis recorded a song 'The Nitty Gritty' to launch a new dance (like 'The Locomotion' before it). The opening line of the record is, 'Now let's get down to the real nitty-gritty'.
Stuart Berg Flexner (Listening to America, 1982) comments: 'It may have originally referred to the grit-like nits or small lice that are hard to get out of one's hair or scalp or to a Black English term for the anus.'