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Q From Helen Norris: Any ideas on the origins of the expression nitty-gritty? I heard today a rather horrible suggestion that it referred to the debris left in the bottom of slave ships after their voyages, once the slaves remaining alive had been removed.

A This belongs in the same class of folklore which holds that a picnic was a slave lynching party. There is the very slightest of links, in that nitty-gritty was originally a Black American English expression, and some writers have guessed that nitty-gritty is a euphemism for shitty. Apart from those tenuous associations, the evidence is all against the theory.

The first known example in print has recently been found by Fred Shapiro of Yale University, in the Pittsburgh Courier of 29 June 1940: “Any convention goes lacking when that Joe Louis clenches his fists, put on the gloves, and steps into the ring in his pretty satin trunks and whips another guy down in the ‘nitty-gritty.’” The expression is almost certainly older (I know of two people who claim to have come across it in the 1920s). But it’s inconceivable that it should have been around since slave-ship days without somebody writing it down. Its meaning — the fundamental issues, the heart of the matter, or the most important aspects of some situation — also doesn’t suggest a connection.

Its origins are elusive. One explanation is that it is a reduplication — through the same mechanism that has given us namby-pamby and itsy-bitsy — of the standard English gritty. This has a literal sense of containing or being covered with grit, but figuratively means showing courage and resolve, so a link with the modern sense is plausible. A less probable explanation was suggested, in a 1974 issue of American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, that nits refers to head lice and grits to the corn cereal.

None of these are supported by any firm evidence, and it’s this lack of a clear origin that has contributed to the wide distribution of the slave-ship story.

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Page created 11 Nov 2000; Last updated 25 Oct 2008