Lost for an appropriate title for this piece, I made up this title word. (Go on, dig out your Classical Greek dictionaries.) As you’ll understand from what follows, its novelty affords me for the time being a precarious sense of security. And what follows is writeable not because it contingently emerges from a personal incident but because it seems to me a paradigmatic example of the issues discussed elsewhere on this site with regard to storytelling, rationality, discourse, conspiracy theories, and perceptions of the Other.
I was somewhat baffled at being censured yesterday evening for using the expression “nitty-gritty”. The term is racist, I was told: one categorically cannot use it; it is to be expunged from the language. The explanation given was that it refers to the debris left in the bottom of slave ships at the end of a voyage. This came as a revelation to me, as you might imagine, I having innocently uttered the term, in the context of conversation, with unsurprisingly the meaning it has in pretty much every dictionary:
- the essential substance or details of a matter; basics; crux: Let’s skip the chitchat and get down to the nitty-gritty.
[Origin: 1960–65, Americanism; rhyming compound of uncert. orig.] Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)
- fundamental, detailed, or probing: nitty-gritty questions.
- direct and practical: nitty-gritty advice; a nitty-gritty system.
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.
- “basic facts,” 1961, knitty-gritty, Amer.Eng., said to have been chiefly used by black jazz musicians, perhaps ult. from nit and grits “finely ground corn.”
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper
My response was, I think, as rational as it was honest: I had been using the term, so far as I’m aware, pretty much all my life, and with the meaning given to it not only by the English-speaking community within which I had grown up but also by the dictionaries that are presumed to be inter alia repositories of publicly agreed meanings. And it had of course been my intent that these be the meanings understood in the context in which I used the term yesterday evening. My feelings were therefore that [a] its use had not been racist since there had been no racist intent underlying my uttering of the expression, [b] whatever the original meaning of an expression may have been, language in general and in this instance the lexicon in particular change over time, the expression thus now having the meaning it has today rather than some other meaning that, for the majority of English speakers, must be lost in its evolutionary history, and [c] comprehensive knowledge of the etymology of words should in general be neither expected nor required. This merely served to make my interlocutor all the more angry.
Returning home, a little unnerved by the direction the conversation had taken, I decided I had to dig around for further information about the origins of the term and how it had become “un-PC”. What I found was interesting: the first recorded instance of the term being slated as racist would seem to be from May 2002, in a story reported by the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, and the Telegraph, among others:
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.
Police forces throughout Scotland had previously, in response to a recommendation of the McPherson report in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, attended diversity training courses organised by Bedford-based consultancy Equilibria. As part of the course, it would appear, attendees had been issued with a list of words and expressions that they should not use, ‘nitty-gritty’ among them. Yet does the term really have the origin imputed to it? Microsoft Encarta and the History Channel both carry the same article on American English noting that
Black English has made its own rich contributions to American English vocabulary, especially through jazz—from the word jazz itself, to such terms as nitty-gritty, uptight, and O.K. The last, now thought to be of African origin, is also the Americanism most widely diffused throughout the world.
The BBC, among others, refers readers to Dr Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, who records the first example from 1956: “You’ll find nobody comes down to the nitty-gritty when it calls for namin’ things for what they are.” The BBC writer goes on to note that
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].”
Christopher Howse in the Telegraph writes that
Nitty-gritty was first recorded in use in the 1950s, with the meaning “heart of the matter” or “core”. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the field secretary of America’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W C Patton, who in 1963 remarked: “Now we’re down to the nitty-gritty, the hard core who’ve never been interested in politics.”
Consensus of opinion seems to be that the slavery-related meaning of ‘nitty-gritty’ must, in the absence of any supporting and corroborating evidence, be presumed to be folk-etymology, the account of its origins an urban myth. But urban myths are powerful things, often amusing and inoffensive when the stories are inconsequential (‘the cat in the microwave’, ‘Bill Gates will give you money if you forward this email’, and its ilk) yet dangerous when serving the interests of those with dubious political agendas. Jews eating babies, hordes of East Europeans massing into the UK to live extravagantly on lavish public funds, Saddam Hussein the mastermind behind 9-11 … the potential for stirring up hatred against communities is as scary as it is provenly real.
A white-sheet-and-burning-cross racist could not have planned it better, therefore. Take a common word or expression that most people will unreflectingly use, with its contemporary dictionary meaning, in many conversations in the course of their lives (and remember that we’re not here talking about obviously racist and inflammatory terms such as the ‘N-word’ and its cousins), give it an etymology for which there is absolutely no evidence, rigourously promulgate a ban on its use, and then stand back and watch the sparks fly. What a marvelous recruiting strategy for the BNP!
A couple of weeks back I was one of more than 150 recipients of a bulk email sent by someone who I’d have thought should know better:
This week the UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it “offended” the Muslim population which claims it never occurred.
This is a frightening portent of the fear that is gripping the world and how easily each country is giving into it. It is now more than 60 years since the Second World War in Europe ended.
This e-mail is being sent as a memorial chain, in memory of the six million Jews, 20 million Russians, 10 million Christians and 1,900 Catholic priests who were murdered, massacred, raped, burned, starved and humiliated with the German and Russian peoples looking the other way! Now more than ever, with Iran among others claiming the Holocaust to be “a myth,” it is imperative to make sure the world never forgets.
This e-mail is intended to reach 40 million people worldwide!
Join us and be a link in the memorial chain and help us distribute it around the world. Please send this e-mail to 10 people you know and ask them to continue the memorial chain.
Please don’t just delete it.
It will only take you a minute to pass this along – Thanks!
This seemed to me a classic example of a dangerous urban myth, the intended consequence of which was to foment, for those who believed it, outcry against Muslims, and, for those who read it as highly contrived Zionist propaganda, ill-feeling towards Jews. In short, a win-win plot to promote inter-faith and inter-community hostility; and so I immediately hit the “Reply All” button with the response:
A very simply verification test of the claims made in this email will show it to be factually untrue (though very loosely based on a characteristically biased article in the notoriously right-wing Daily Mail at the beginning of April of this year).
I recommend that:
 recipients do as I have done–attempt to establish, on the basis of published evidence and consultation with appropriate government offices, the veracity of the claims made
 recipients reflect very seriously on the motives, verging of criminal race hatred, that might prompt the continuing circulation of such an email (I’ve been receiving numerous copies of it for more than 2 tedious months … “*this week* the UK removed …”? huh!)
 recipients recognise, on close scrutiny, that the Holocaust of Jews in Germany, of blacks, gypsies, and others in Nazi Germany, of Herero in Namibia, of Armenians in Turkey, of native Americans in the USA, of Congolese by the Belgians, of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs, …, etc, are all too horrific and too well documented to ever be erased from public memory and all too important ever to be erased from school curricula.
What were the facts of the matter? that the Historical Association published a report, ‘Challenges and Opportunities for Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 13-19 (TEACH)‘, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), in which at the bottom of page 15 it notes that:
a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils
And that isolated instance is construed to mean that “This week the UK removed The Holocaust from its school curriculum because it ‘offended’ the Muslim population which claims it never occurred”? Even The Daily Mail report didn’t go so maliciously far as to claim that! (though still got it mischievously wrong.) In short, an inflammatory lie, which the Holocaust Education Trust–doubtlessly recognising the damage it could do–has been hasty to expose in a long and detailed response. (See also the article on the ‘Holocaust Teaching Ban‘ at Snopes.com, that glorious debunker of urban myths).
My feelings about the ban on the use of ‘nitty-gritty’ are the same and more. Not only does it risk, in its absurdity, stirring up resentments towards the African British community, not only does it dangerously risk fuelling tensions between communities though the stigmatisation of every innocent user of the expression as a ‘racist’, but also strips from the language an expression that, as far as recorded usage suggests, is one of the rare examples of Black English to have won the battle for inclusion in the English dictionary and to have become mainstream.
Postscript, 4th August 2007
In my haste to complete the above article, I missed the terminological entry for ‘nitty-gritty’ published by Ligali (http://www.ligali.org), a non profit voluntary organisation founded in 2002 “with the aim of challenging the negative representations of the African British community across all forms of media”. I quote the entry in full below:
The origins of the expression nitty-gritty is said to be the term used to refer to debris left at the bottom of slavers ships after their voyages, including the African people who had perished during the journey once the surviving Africans had been removed.
Some researchers attribute it to African American Jazz musicians around 1961 concluding it could possibly originate from nit and grits. Other researchers claim that the phrase is a euphemism for sh**ty whilst others question the slavers ship relevance citing that the first European recording of it in print is in Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang first published in 1956 some 90 years after the end of the slavery in the US. The assertion is that it is unlikely that it could have been around in the era of enslavement without having been written down.
However, most facts widely corroborate that this term had first been recognised as an offensive English language expression by African Americans. 1 Indeed a 1974 issue of American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society suggested that nits refer to head lice and grits to the corn cereal.
In May 2002, Police criticised the use of the phrase ‘nitty-gritty’ by Home Office minister John Denham because officers are forbidden from using the term under race relations rules. Officers told him using the term was banned because it had connotations with slavery. When told about the phrase, Mr. Denham told delegates: ‘It does show there are phrases in our language that we are not aware of’. Home secretary David Blunkett dismissed the ‘nitty-gritty’ ban as absurd and ‘absolute silliness’ that distracted from the real issue of tackling racism in the police.
Although one must commend their initiative in combatting bias, offensive language, and misrepresentation (pioneered by Stuart Hall, 1997, and Wetherell and Potter, 1992), one wonders whether they may be shooting themselves in the foot on this occasion. The entry begins: “The origins of the expression nitty-gritty is said to be the term used to refer to debris …”. Said by whom? on the basis of what evidence? From my days working with Roger Fowler, Gunther Kress, Bob Hodge, and Tony Trew at the University of East Anglia in the mid-1970s (and exemplified in my own PhD), I have learned to be wary of medio-passive constructions allowing the elision of the grammatical subject, either to obfuscate agency (cf. “The child was killed in the ensuing fracas” vs “Government soldiers killed the child in the ensuing fracas”) or to get around the issue of the agent not being clearly identifiable (cf. the alternative impersonal “they” construction, as in “They say that the Chinese are going to take over the world”). The omission of source and evidential basis is therefore worrying.
The second paragraph cites the first recorded publication of the term; the third paragraph continues: “However, most facts widely corroborate that this term had first been recognised as an offensive English language expression by African Americans”. The claim made here is not with respect to either the origin or any presumed meaning of the term but that African Americans have found the expression, for unspecified reasons, offensive. What proportion of African Americans? by what means was their reaction to the expression determined? What precisely are the uncited “facts” that “widely corroborate” recognition by African Americans that the expression is offensive? That “a 1974 issue of American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society suggested that nits refer to head lice and grits to the corn cereal” does not establish a link either to African Americans or to slave ships.
In brief, the failure to reference sources or cite documented evidence badly undermines the case being made here for the avoidance of “nitty-gritty”. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the compilers / editors of the term bank; but my suspcious mind cannot help but speculate on how easy it would be for malicious racists to anonymously submit such terms for inclusion in the Ligali term bank for their own disruptive ends.
- Muddying the waters even further, there are African Americans–the term recommended by Ligali as politically correct–who appear to find the label ‘African American’ offensive: “The n-word and African-American are racist terms and I don’t like being call either of them, I am a Caribbean-American or simple an American“. [↩]