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A BBC article, dated 15 May 2002, asserts the expression nitty-gritty is banned from British politics (and also by police services) due to its supposedly disagreeable origin. The emphasis in bold is not mine:

Origin 2: one theory is that "nitty-gritty" refers to the debris left in the bottom of a slave ships at the end of a voyage. Hence, use of the term is highly contentious and has been banned by the police.

USAGE: ignorant of this, Home Office minister John Denham used the term during a speech to the Police Federation Conference on Tuesday. "[T]hey don't normally get into that nitty-gritty," he said, only to find himself being challenged by a delegate who said officers were banned from using it because of race relations laws. Officers later said it was just an example of how the English language had been turned into a minefield of political correctness.
DISPUTED 2: the view that "nitty-gritty" has slave connotations "may belong in the same line of folklore which holds that a picnic was a slave lynching party," writes lexicographer Michael Quinion in his World Wide Words website. "Its origins are elusive," writes Mr Quinion, but it is "inconceivable that it should have been around since slave-ship days without somebody writing it down [until the mid-20th Century]."

On 23 January 2021, the BBC rejected complaints made against its journalist, Laura Kuenssberg, who used the disputed phrase in their podcast, Brexitcast, when referring to the departure of top No.10 press chief Lee Cain

'Before we get into the nitty gritty for saddo nerds like us who are fascinated by all this soap opera...'

Just six months earlier, it was reported that SKY Sports commentators and journalists were forbidden to say “nitty gritty” on air.

A Guardian reader claimed that the expression was a corruption of the (19th century?) French term nigritique for African and Creole slaves.

So to get down to the 'nitty gritty' as the English speakers pronounced it was to mix with the people downtown. The standard dictionaries are coy about this derivation.

Doug Gowan, Hornsey

Yet the website–The Phrase Founder–states that the earliest instance in print, with its current meaning, dates back to June 1940 and can be seen in The Pittsburgh Courier

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 history of its first appearance in print was confirmed in a 2013 Tweet by the OED. Although no hint of its slave ships roots were made, the Dictionary asserted the phrase dated back to the 1940s.

'Nitty-gritty' (meaning 'the heart of the matter') can be traced back to at least 1940, & originated in the U.S. in African-American usage.

  • Today, in 2022, is this English expression perceived racist by many Anglophones despite the hard evidence to the contrary?

  • Would it be advisable to avoid saying "nitty gritty" in an international conference or even in a conversation with an English speaking academician, physician etc.?


This question is not a duplicate of Etymology of reduplicative compound "nitty-gritty" that was asked in 2011, because it only asked about its origin.

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  • 4
    Can an answer to this be anything but opinion? My opinion is that someone will find fault with you if you use it, but that this is yet another example of how 'the English language ha[s] been turned into a minefield of political correctness'. The 'guinea pig' may have to be relabelled soon. May 12 at 10:58
  • 3
    @EdwinAshworth But that's why I had to ask, I welcome opinions by English native speakers because I am asking how the phrase is generally perceived. Until I had done the research, because I was curious of its history, I had no idea it was banned by the Police force.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 12 at 11:01
  • 2
    "Would it be advisable...?" is a matter of opinion, surely, or at least situation-specific for which no generalisation is possible. "Is this expression racist?" might be on-topic if it's possible to find a documentary analysis (which I doubt is actually possible).
    – Andrew Leach
    May 12 at 11:25
  • 2
    @AndrewLeach Yesterday I had a speaking lesson with an Italian doctor who is preparing a powerpoint presentation. In our conversation, I spontaneously came up with "nitty gritty" saying that it was an informal but common expression equivalent to the Italian "andare al sodo" (get back to brass tacks) and a native speaker would be impressed to hear it in a conversation. Well... imagine my shock this morning to discover that it might be seen as being racist! Isn't the documented analysis (I'm not sure what you mean by this) confirmed by the BBC report and it being banned on Sky Sports?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 12 at 11:42
  • 4
    I wouldn't trust as gospel anything the BBC does. Their "climate editor" has been found to be including fake news in his reports, for example. They are attempting to change public opinion and cannot be trusted to report it.
    – Andrew Leach
    May 12 at 11:59

2 Answers 2

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Coverage of 'nitty-gritty' in slang dictionaries

J.L. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) has entries for nitty-gritty as a noun and for nitty-gritty as an adjective, the former usage evidently being somewhat older than the latter:

nitty-gritty n. {prob. rhyming elab. of grit(ty)} 1. Orig. Black E. the fundamental issues; stark realities; essential facts; (also) a difficult situation; usu. in phr. down to the nitty-gritty.—also used attrib. Now colloq. or S[tandard] E[nglish]. [Earliest three citations:] 1956 Childress Like One of the Family 83: You'll find nobody comes down to the nitty-gritty when it calls for namin' things for what they are. Ibid. 157: very minute of grandma's life was a struggle....Sometimes she'd get down to the "nitty gritty" and have her back to the wall. 1961 J.A. Williams Night Song 85: This crap is gettin' down to the nitty-gritty here now, and there are two or three cats I wants to burn when the shit hits the fan. 1963 in [Wentworth & Flexner] D[ictionary of] A[merican] S[lang] (ed. 2): Negroes...know perfectly well that the nitty-gritty of situation is the essentials of it.

nitty-gritty adj. Orig. Black E. gritty; fundamental.—used prenominally.—also used fig. Now colloq. or S.E. Hence nitty-grittily, adv. [Citations (from as early as 1964) omitted.]

Jonathon Green, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, second edition (2005) takes a similar view of the term's origin, although perhaps a bit more guardedly:

nitty-gritty n. (also gritty) {1950s+} (orig. US Black) the basics, the essentials, the grass roots; esp. in GET DOWN TO THE NITTY-GRITTY v. {ety. unknown; redup. of SE gritty, composed of minute particles}

As Lighter indicates, the term appears in the supplementary section of Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang, supplemented edition (1967). Here is the full entry for the expression in that dictionary:

nitty-gritty n. The basics or essentials of any situation, predicament, action, etc., esp. the hard, unvarnished facts, "brass tacks," or harsh realities. [Cited instance:] 1963: "Negroes ... know perfectly well that the nitty-gritty of a situation is the essentials of it." "Beyond the Ears of the Greys," Time [magazine], Aug 2, 14. Negro use.

Robert Chapman, New Dictionary of American Slang, (1986) puts forward a different origin theory for the term:

the nitty-gritty or the nitty 1 n phr fr 1960s black The most basic elements, esp when unwelcome or unpleasant; harsh realities: from what they call the nitty gritty and the grass roots—Bobby Seale/ the awesome and awful nitty gritty of today's urban condition—Ada Louise Huxtable/ and shifting from ideology to the nitty—National Review 2 adj phr: a lot of nitty-gritty campaigning as well—Newsweek 3 n phr Practical details: I'll go over the broad outlines of the program and then Leslie will fill you in on the nitty-gritties {fr the repellent association of nits "the eggs of hair lice, young hair lice" and grit "abrasive granules"}

Robert Hendrickson, Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, second edition (1997) endorses Chapman's theory about the origin of the expression:

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.

In contrast, none of the three general African American dictionaries I consulted offers an origin story for nitty-gritty. The earliest of the three, Clarence Major, Dictionary of Afro-American Slang 1970) has this brief entry:

Nitty-gritty: unvarnished facts; underbelly of situation; core; the basics.

Major's much longer and much better documented Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) unfortunately doesn't add much to the 1970 volume's treatment. It repeats the earlier definition, adding only that the period of popular Black use of the expression was the "1960s–1970s." It also includes a couple of citations, but these are disappointing. One is to the edition of Wentworth & Flexner noted earlier in this answer, and the other is to page 188 of Robert Gold, A Jazz Lexicon (1964); unfortunately Gold does not have an entry for nitty-gritty, and there is not even a passing mention of the term on page 188.

The coverage of nitty-gritty in Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994) is likewise perfunctory:

NITTY GRITTY The core, fundamental essence of something. Crossover term.

Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) address the etymological question somewhat combatively:

nitty-gritty noun the essence of the matter US, 1956 Coined by black people, then spread into wider use. In the early 2000s, the belief that the term originally applied to the debris left at the bottom of slave ships when the slaves were removed from the ship circulated with speed, certainty, and outrage. Whether the initial report was an international hoax or merely basis-free speculation, it is false etymology. All authorities agree that the etymology is unknown yet some ill-informed politically correct types consider the word to have racist overtones.


Early 1950s instances of 'nitty gritty' in the wild

Although Dalzell & Victor give 1956 as a first documented occurrence date, the first published instance it cite is from 1964. But Greybeard's answer cites an instance of the expression from 1940 in the Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] Courier—a historically Black periodical, according to the Wikipedia article about it. That instance is much earlier than any I could find in various online database searches.

The four earliest instances I could find were from 1952 and 1953, from two repeat authors. From Luke Roberts, Harlem Model (1952) [combined snippets]:

"I'll ask the questions," Ace shot back.

The racketeer looked amused. "Fire away. But just make sure your mouth doesn't get you into something you can't handle."

"I want to know about you and the school."

"Ah, now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty. Exactly what about me and the school?” He pointed to a chair. "Might as well sit down. It's a long story."

From A.S. "Doc" Young, "Inside Sports," in Jet magazine (October 2, 1952):

Subsequently, Jake [Gaither, football coach at Florida A&M College] got down to the nitty-gritty. First, he moaned the loss of 15 lettermen. Then, he said, "We face a tremendous job of rebuilding and will be lucky to win half of our games." Anybody want to bet on a 50-50 season for Famcee? If so, get your coverage here, and please give me better than 6 to 5.

From Luke Roberts, Harlem Doctor (1953) [combined snippets]:

The two girls were, apparently, awaiting their arrival. What had followed had been night of good, clean fun — at least as long as Joe and Sid remained.They both were married men and were working at it, Arny had laughingly explained when things got down to the nitty gritty. Things didn't really get groovy until after the benedicts went home to their respective wives.

And from A.S. "Doc" Young, "Inside Sports" in Jet magazine (February 26, 1953):

Baseball being the kind of business it is [Larry] Doby [a star outfielder for the Cleveland Indians] had no real out when he held out; if things had gotten down to the nitty-gritty, [Hank] Greenberg [the Indians' general manager] could have said, "Accept my offer or get out of baseball." He probably could have made it stick, although it would have been an impractical maneuver.

Luke Roberts was (the pseudonym of) a novelist who produced potboiler/torrid romance titles. A sampling of the original paperback covers for his novels is posted at this Facebook site. Doc Young was a longtime sportswriter at various newspapers and magazines. Between them, they may have done more than any other two ink-stained wretches on the planet to popularize nitty-gritty in the early 1950s.


About that 'slave ship debris' explanation ...

Dalzell & Victor's capsule debunking of the "slave ship debris" theory of the phrase's origin raises a couple of obvious questions: where and when did that "debris" theory arise?

According to Dalzell & Victor, it occurred "in the early 2000s." A search of "nitty-gritty" + "slave" and "nitty gritty" + "racist" yield lots of matches throughout the 1990s in which nitty-gritty appears un-self-consciously and seemingly nonpejoratively in discussions of slavery and/or racism—but not once in the context of its being a racist term itself or in the context of the "slave ship debris" theory.

That changes in 2002—and the change seems to have arisen exclusively in British publications. Mari-Lou A cites a detailed May 15, 2002, BBC article in her question. A Google Books search turns up two other publications from 2002 in which use of nitty-gritty is posed as having racial complications.

First, from an unidentified item seemingly by Darcus Howe, in New Statesman, volume 131 (2002) [combined snippets]:

They call it banter—which brings me to the Police Federation. At its conference, a minister mentioned getting down to "the nitty-gritty". A delegate got up and said that this was a racist term, politically incorrect. The federation spun it for all it was worth, with the Daily Mail in support.

In my 35 years in race-related activities, I had never come across this "nitty-gritty" business before. I called several race relations advisers and trainers, and a black policeman. Not one had heard of it before. The term is supposedly offensive because it referred to the debris left in the bottom of slave ships after a voyage. (If so, this origin is unknown to the editors of the OED.) I believe it was a set-up to allow the police to get back at those of us who demanded they clean up language that they passed off as canteen banter.

The Wikipedia page for Darcus Howe reports that he "was a British broadcaster, writer and racial justice campaigner." New Statesman is a left-liberal British magazine, founded more than a century ago by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Whether Howe is correct or mistaken in thinking that the entire "slave ship debris" theory was a set-up for Britain's equivalent of Fox News to run with, it is interesting that he reports not finding anyone in his "racial justice" milieu who subscribed to it in 2002.

Second, from an unidentified item in Spearhead, issues 395–404 (200s[?]) [text not shown in snippet window]:

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police has issued an order to its officers never to use the phrase 'nitty-gritty', and has ticked off a few who have broken the rule. The reason? The phrase is said to be linked to the slave trade and is therefore offensive to certain ethnic groups.

According to the Wikipedia article about it, Spearhead "was a British far-right magazine edited by John Tyndall until his death in July 2005."

After two decades of life in a country (the U.S.) where ginning up outrage over and contempt for the supposed vileness and mendacity of one's political opponents seems to have become a crucial element in the business model of a number of news outlets, I find it not at all hard to believe that the "slave ship debris" etymological argument for nitty-gritty might have been simply a hoax—like crop circles or that story in The Onion about the U.S. Congress threatening to relocate to Charlotte or Memphis if the District of Columbia didn't build it a new state-of-the-art facility with a retractable dome (which at least one credulous official Chinese news sites cited as proof of the utter corruption of the U.S. government). But however the theory arose, it has never had any serious academic support.

A Google Books chart tracking the frequency of "nitty gritty" over the years 1940–2019 suggests that any blowback against use of the term on grounds that it is racially problematic is scarcely detectable:

Even when Google Books search results are restricted to British publications, the drop over the period 2001–2008 is smaller than the drop from 1986 to 1993, when no tempest was troubling the teacup of anyone inclined to use the term nitty-gritty:

This is one prospective culture war controversy that seems not to have reached critical mass in the U.S. (At least, I haven't noticed it.) But there is still plenty of time and an endless supply of media opportunists to make it happen here if ever they don't have something brighter, shinier, or juicier to show their audience during a given news cycle.

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  • Wish I could give this multiple uvs!
    – Tim
    May 13 at 11:22
  • I found this line ("In effect, he was involved in the every day nitty-gritty of the nitty-gritty job.") dated 1936, I tried checking the date's authenticity but cannot verify it. google.co.uk/books/edition/Unemployment_Insurance_Reporter/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 14 at 7:39
  • @Mari-LouA: Thanks for citing this occurrence. Unfortunately, bundles of federal administrative regulations and cases are often reported as series dating back to the first year of the series—and that may be the case here. A U.S. Google Books search finds the same instance that you found, but if you look at the title on the U.S. search result page (at books.google.com/…) through a magnifying glass, you'll see that the material inside...
    – Sven Yargs
    May 14 at 8:11
  • 1
    ...comes from the period January 1977–January 1978. It seems very likely that the '1936' date picked up by Google Books' OCR program refers to the date of first volume of "Unemployment Insurance Reporter"—which would have come out in 1936, since the federal law creating the Social Security Administration was enacted in 1935—and not to the year when the quoted administrative opinion was written (and published).
    – Sven Yargs
    May 14 at 8:11
  • Hi Sven....off-topic, I was recently sent sent an invite by bellingcat.com to do "open source research". I don't know what your day job is, but you have many times proven yourself a master of this ...and they are looking for investigative researchers Jun 2 at 19:11
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The earliest reference for nitty-gritty is 1940, by which time there were no slave ships.

The "racist" origins seem to be the inventions of a fevered mind.

The OED* has

Forms: 1900s– knitty-gritty, 1900s– nitty-gritty.

Origin: Of uncertain origin. Perhaps formed within English, by compounding. Etymon: gritty adj.1

Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps a reduplication (with variation of initial consonant cluster) of gritty adj.1

Other etymologies have been suggested but do not appear to be supported by any firm evidence.

colloquial (originally U.S. in African-American usage).

A. n. The most important aspects or practical details of a situation, subject, etc.; the harsh realities; the heart of the matter. Frequently in (to get) down to the nitty-gritty.

1940 Pittsburgh Courier 29 June 10 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'.

*This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, December 2003; most recently modified version published online March 2022).

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