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Nitty gritty

Posted by ESC on July 18, 2003

In Reply to: Hegemonious introspections? posted by Lewis on July 18, 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: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past, 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]

(Getting on the soap-box.)

Attributing sayings, words, etc., to celebrities isn't an American thing, it's a youth thing. Example: a couple of days ago a youth ask me if a phrase (can't remember what it was) was coined by the writers of "Designing Women," (1986-93) television show. I said it was a Southern phrase that had been around for years.

Many young (and old) people get all their "culture" from television and popular music.

(Getting off soap-box.)

To save people a trip to the archives, here's what I have on "nitty gritty."

NITTY GRITTY -- "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) states:

"nitty-gritty - 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." From The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Fact on File, New York, 1997). 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: An Illustrated History of Words and Phrases from Our Lively and Splendid Past 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'."

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