The phrase is also agreed to have another, less innocent meaning, although it has long since fallen into disuse. Reports do suggest however that it was a derogatory term for slaves in the early 1900s, or even worse; a euphemistic term for the practice of forcing intercourse on the female slaves under ones 'ownership'. As it has passed into such common usage few have call to know this unpleasant origin; and its use by public officials has occasionally caused some scandal. It is also believed to be a euphemism for the layer of excrement at the bottom of a slave ship after a trans-atlantic crossing. Hence to "get down to the nitty-gritty".
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term is of 20th Century coinage. Surely, therefore, the phrase could not relate to the issues described above because the practice of slavery as described was already historical? I have been led to believe the alleged slavery connection is an urban myth. Has anyone got a definitive source?
- Dating the phrase is difficult, since the main function of the word seems to have been as a spoken euphemism that would allow, say, white Southerners to make an allusion to "black" issues over the dining table without their children understanding what was being mentioned. The spoken usage may well go back significantly further than the earliest written documentation, since there wouldn't have been an obvious need to write the phrase down (unless perhaps some KKK official felt the need to document its use).
- Insulting slang terms based on the idea of slavery can persist long after slavery has ended - remember, racial segregation was still legally supported in parts of the the South until comparatively recently (the fundamentalist Christian Jerry Falwell, very recently deceased, started out as a pro-segregation campaigner), so there would have been easily enough people in the South to keep these nasty terms alive . Abusive slang can have a very long life. Floortile 18:13, 16 May 2007 (UTC)
- Literary References
I recall Maya Angelou, in her book, " I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" being punished by her mother for using the term because she considered it offensive.
...and on a lighter note: i have read that "nitty gritty" was a slang term used by blues musicians to refer to the rough texture felt by the tongue on the inner walls of a woman's vagina when performing cunnilingus upon her, thus "getting down to the nitty gritty". i kid you not18.104.22.168 22:05, 19 August 2011 (UTC)
Rough texture? I don't want to know. OK, maybe I do. No, I don't. neodanite
Nitty gritty (Southern States, USA / West Indies)
The mysteriousness of the origin of "nitty-gritty" stems from the fact that it originated as a word that wasn't supposed to be explained or documented. In the American Old South, white segregationist groups were fond of inventing codewords that would be understood by fellow segregationists but not by outsiders, and "nitty-gritty" was one of them.
The word is a basic "secret slang" construction of the type that kids often use to talk to each other so that any eavesdroppers hear it as gibberish. The speaker strips out all the vowels and vowel sequences from a sentence and replaces them with a distracting "nonsense" sound, which the intended listener then strips out, leaving just the original consonants, which are usually sufficient to recontruct the words.
Working backwards from "nitty-gritty" to reconstitute the original word, the fake sequence is obviously "itty", and the original source word becomes
This explanation seems to explain all subsequent usage.
The phrase "the nitty gritty" is sometimes used by Southern right-wing politicians and evangelist Christians to refer to a set of shared fundamental beliefs that the audience would consider self-evident, but which are not always stated, or which do not need to be stated. The speaker will often know the racial origin of the phrase and will assume that their target audience does too, allowing the phrase to be used as a "codeword" to connect with like-minded members of the audience without alienating other listeners who wouldn't understand the "racial" reference. However, the deliberate vagueness of the term means that it's also possible that some other Southern politicians and campaigners may have inadvertently adopted the phrase without realising its racial connotations, and may use it publicly to refer to other "back to basics" campaigns based around fundamentalist values and beliefs that have no racial content.
This can make it difficult for outsiders to tell whether a Southern politician or campaigner referring to "the nitty gritty" is really campaigning on a racist platform or not - and of course, this uncertainty was originally part of the reason for the phrase existing, it allowed "good ol' boys" to understand what was really being said by context, while still allowing the campaigner to claim that there was no "racial" content to their speeches. Floortile 17:43, 16 May 2007 (UTC)
Agreed by whom? After a Equality and Diversity Course (much needed), this origin story for Nitty-Gritty was posited by our speaker, so that we would be aware of how offensive our language might be, without us even knowing it. When I asked for where this information came from, I received no sensible reply. At first I was a bit annoyed by this apparent fanciful redaction of history for no good reason so I calmed down and researched a little. There are no references in any literature either online or in any reference book I can find that Nitty-Gritty is anything but a common and innocent phrase referring to the basics, the soil, the unpleasant, hard part of any enterprise. For example Phrase.org who are a group of amateur and professional lexicographers (twas ever thus) gives the history of this mis-definition, and states the first written reference is Steve McQueen in Time in the 1960s! I even downloaded a sailors dictionary from the 1800s from Gutenburgh which doesn't refer to it at all (nitty means 'noisy'). So I'll ask Floortile, can you tell me of any literature from which this definition comes from, even the person who told you it. Or was it passed solely over the polite tables of Georgia Society until it reappeared to be used by 1920s jazz musicians, Steve McQueen, the Black Panthers, British Government Ministers at ACPO senior police officers conferences (google that one) and my mother to name but a few. I don't mind moderating my language if it truly offends, but don't destroy the English language over some specious definition. KBO (12th March 2009)
Nitty gritty (Southern States, USA - Counterpoint)
While the argument that nitty-gritty arose as an alternative to the use of nigger is plausible, I'd counter that euphemisms arise when there's a need to employ a more socially acceptable term. The word nigger was so ingrained in the antebellum vernacular of the American South that there was no need to employ a euphemism.
Philip Howard - The Times - London - Thursday May 16th 2002 ...[The police apparently believe that "nitty - gritty" refers to the debris left at the bottom of a slave ship after a voyage...]... This is not just politically correct nonsense... The first appearance of "nitty - gritty" in print was in Time magazine in August 1963;The negroes present would know perfectly well that the nitty - gritty of a situation is the essentials of it.... It is inconceivable that the phrase "nitty-gritty" lay dormant in Black American for a century after the last slave ship sailed without somebody like Harriet Beecher Stowe writing it down. To assert that "nitty-gritty" is racist is as moronic as saying "niggardly" is an insult to black people. We cannot allow English language to be kidnapped by ignoramuses in race relations industry... Of course, it behoves us all, including police, to use sensitive language and not cause offence. Philip Howard ; 2nd November 1933 - 5th October 2014 true... but if you knew that 'nitty gritty' was referred to by some as the 'effluent and faeces that collected in the bottom of slaving ships' and you used the word then the charge of being 'racist would stick (pardon the pun). I would also like to point out that 'ignorance of the law is no excuse' in the UK at least. Thus, you could find yourself in the dock if some smart assed person overheard you using the term. Please don't shoot the messenger!
Nitty-gritty (in popular music)
The Phrase "Nitty Gritty" was also adopted by some black musicians as a cultural reference, and/or as a euphemism for sex:
- Chuck Berry's song: "Club Nitty Gritty".
- Shirley Ellis's song "Nitty Gritty" refers to "getting right down" to "the real nitty gritty".
- Gladys Knight and the Pips covered Ellis's song on their 1969 album: "Nitty Gritty".
- The Dirt Band , a group with a varying line-up, specialising in playing Country music classics, renamed themselves "The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band".
- Jamaican rapper Glen Holness went by the stage name "Nitty Gritty" until he was shot dead in 1991.
The phrase also appears in the lyrics of some later popular songs that don't obviously share same cultural references, usually as an implied reference to sex. It's often not clear from the context of these later songs whether or not the phrase is still intended to carry an ethnic reference. Floortile 19:54, 20 May 2007 (UTC)