I've always been curious about that one and I've come across many contending theories for the etymology of nitty-gritty. English is quite fond of these reduplicative compounds.
I'd like to know whether some consensus has been achieved in this area.
Alain, as you have done me so much service with your etymologies, I simply must do you one ;)
Nitty-gritty comes by way of African-American culture, southern and south-western African-American culture to be exact, and the word was attested orally as early as the 1920s. Let me quote from a paper, The Real Nitty Gritty by a W. R. Higginbotham and J.A., from whence nearly all my information comes:
From African-American culture, it then apparently passed into the lingo of college students at about the time of the 1960s, by way of popular music, and was probably helped in its adoption by the general countercultural mood of that era. (Remember this was the era of "the [Civil Rights] struggle"; knowing the obscure argot of an oppressed people would have likely seemed appealingly dangerous and sexy to college students.) From there, it spread into the general culture via writers and high-circulation periodicals, such as The New York Times and Newsweek. One song written in 1963, by a Licoln Chase, titled simply The Nitty Gritty, appears to have been especially influential in the uptake of the word. I reproduce the first few lines:
More from the paper:
But you're probably wondering how this phrasing get down to the nitty gritty was coined originally. Well, here's where it gets disgusting. In fairness, there is actually some disagreement about the following explanation in the paper -- Higginbotham promotes the idea in the beginning, while J.A. argues against it -- but it is easily the most intriguing one I found therein, so I must reproduce it. Apparently, the "nitty" in nitty gritty refers to actual nits, as in lice, and the gritty was initially a reference to ground hominy, and then became a reference the grinding action one uses to reproduce the staple. Of course, that in turn was easily sexualized in meaning so that gritty also came to describe the grinding action of raw, bestial intercourse. Thus, getting down to the nitty-gritty means getting down so deep in a woman that one feels everything of her movements, and I do mean everything. The paper gives this joke to illustrate:
Wow! Amazing language, our English.