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Nitty and gritty

Posted by ESC on October 07, 2000

In Reply to: Nitty-Gritty (and just plain gritty) posted by Scott Marsden on October 05, 2000

: : : Can anyone please help me to confirm/dispel someone's theory that this directly relates back to the slave trade. If not, suggestions as to the origin would be welcome.

: : : Many thanks in anticipation

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

: : The "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997) states: "nitty-gritty - Getting down to the nitty-gritty is getting down to basic elements. Though first recorded 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. But anyway.

: : The "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988) 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.'"

: : "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982) 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'."

: The Liberal Party of Canada has been known as "The Grits" since the party was founded in the mid-1800s. This is because one of the major groups involved in its founding were known as "Grits" (also "Clear Grits"). This had nothing to do with lice or anuses (!) -- their "grit" stemmed from their belief in no-nonsense, direct government. This sense of the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "gryt", or bolted flour. "A man of grit, or clear grit, is one of decision, from whom all doubt or vacillation has been bolted out, as husks from fine flour." (Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable")

You're talking about the "gritty." As in: "'Grits' arrived in the early 1800s, and was often used in combinations, as 'true grit,' 'pure grit,' and 'clear grit'." From "I Hear America Talking" by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976) in the chapter "Gumption, Spunk, Grit, Sand, Guts and Balls."

The lice reference relates to the "nitty."