Posted by Lewis on July 18, 2003
In Reply to: Brass tacks & nitty gritty posted by James Briggs 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).
: : -----
: : : 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.'
I must say that I am rather disappointed that anybody would propagate stories of well-known word origins to American clebrities, apart from other American celebrities. Without intending to cause offence to our American cousins, who are a most welcome part of this board, it does rather betray a certain Americo-centric world view to constantly seek US roots for English expressions.
It would appear, from some of the quoted writers/quasi-academics (not the posters on here), that an American origin of 1902 is usually given prominence over an English origin of 1467 or suchlike.
English, as we all know, is a global language that has had pockets of isolated development throughout the globe : all of them contributing to the lexicon. In the UK, we have a background of a world-wide colonial empire from which a multitude of words travelled back, in the same way that a thousand years before words must have travelled to ancient Rome. Now, America has that level of world domination, but let us not betray history and make it word domination too.
[gets off soap-box]