Monday, May 30, 2016

Getting Right Down to It

In the coming cataclysmic Armageddon—or should I say Presidential election?—it will soon be time to get down to the nitty-gritty. The nitty-gritty is defined as “essential, practical, basic details—often harsh or unpleasant.” And where, you ask, does the phrase originate?

It has been around since the 1930s, but gained great currency in the 1990s after President Bush 41, in a classic malapropism at a country music awards show, referred to the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird,” instead of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (In doing so, Mr. Bush rivaled John Travolta’s introduction of Idina Menzel at the Oscar awards as Adele Dazeem.)

Consult a dictionary and you will find that nitty-gritty’s etymology falls back on that favorite explanation: “origin unknown.” The term has etymologists stumped—but not for lack of trying.

It has been alleged that it started as a derogatory allusion to the scant belongings of enslaved Africans carried on British ships in the 18th century, with “nitty” perhaps a euphemism for another n-word.  But there is absolutely no evidence for this theory and the phrase does not appear in print until the 1930s.

The Online Etymological Dictionary suggests it has something to do with “grits,” i.e. finely ground corn, and was a term used by African-American jazz musicians. Other word sleuths point to the “nit” reference to head lice, without much logical justification. Still others, perhaps under the influence of President Bush’s favorite band, think it stems somehow from the qualities of dirt or gravel, and there have been attempts to link the phrase to the kind of stubborn determination known as “true grit” and to the lamebrained person we call a “nitwit.” None of these ideas can be substantiated.

Copyright records from 1937 show a song called “The Nitty Gritty Dance,” by Arthur Harrington Gibbs. The term pops up in Alice Childress’ 1956 novel Like One of the Family and in the phrase “nitty-gritty gator” (“a low-life dude”) in a description of hepcat slang in The Daily Journal of Commerce, Texas, in June of 1956.

But it was not until the 1960s that the term came into general usage, popularized by “The Nitty Gritty,” a song by Lincoln Chase, recorded by Shirley Ellis and later by Gladys Knight and the Pips. In the lyrics of that song,
            Everybody's asking what the nitty gritty,
            The nitty gritty's anything you want it to be,
            Just stir it up from the soul,
            And when it starts to fizz,
            That's what the nitty gritty is.

According to the blogger Azizi Powell, “getting right down to the nitty-gritty” in a dance context means “ to be real in the way that you dance–to put aside fake societal notions of being stiff, or refined, or too controlled in the way you move….to get funky.”

That may be all we ever know about “nitty-gritty”—and all we need to know.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t mind getting down to the nitty, but he prefers to have nothing to do with the gritty.
            There once was an old etymologist
            Who longed to be a philologist,
                        When he failed in that quest,
                        He said, “Still I’m blessed,
            For at least I’m not a proctologist.”

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