Nitty-gritty meaning: the possible slave-trade origins of the phrase - and other terms that may have racist links

The seemingly innocent phrase is believed to have origins with links to the time of slavery

Laura Kuenssberg at the Conservative Party annual conference in 2017 (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

A complaint against the BBC’s political editor for the use of a term thought by some to have racist connotations has been rejected by the broadcaster.

Laura Kuenssberg found herself in hot water with one complainant recently for using the phrase “nitty-gritty”, which anti-racism campaigners claim originates from the slave trade.

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Kuenssberg used the term while speaking on an episode of the Brexitcast podcast about the departure of top Downing Street press chief Lee Cain.

It's thought the phrase once referred to the debris found at the bottom of a slave ship once its human cargo had been unloaded (Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A complaint from a listener was initially dismissed by programme makers, but was escalated to the corporation's executive complaints unit; the unit found in Kuenssberg's favour.

In 2020, Sky Sports added ‘nitty gritty’ to its list of banned words and phrases, urging broadcasters and commentators to not use the term on air according to the Daily Mail, who reported that “commentators and match reporters have been sent a number of emails with phrases which are deemed out of bounds.”

But it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to say, right? To get down to the ‘nitty gritty’ of something?

Perhaps not; the phrase is believed to have origins with links to the time of slavery.

Here’s everything you need to know:

What does nitty-gritty mean?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘nitty gritty’ now refers to “the basic facts of a situation”.

But it is believed the phrase once had less palatable connotations, with many considering the term to have roots to be in the slave trade – its use is already banned in institutions like the police force.

Theories suggest the expression originally referred to the detritus found in the bottom of boats once a shipment of slaves had been removed from the hold, and was eventually stretched to refer to the slaves themselves.

According to etymology resource phrases.org, claims of the term’s slave-trade links first came to attention in 2005 following an “equality and diversity” course for Bristol Council employees in 2005 (a quick Google search unearths articles discussing the merits of nitty-gritty's origins existed years before this).

Phrases.org claims, “there is no evidence to support the suggestion that 'nitty gritty' has any connection with slave ships,” saying the phrase “isn't even recorded in print” until the 1930s, “long after slave ships had disappeared.”

It lists the earliest example of the phrase in print coming from a catalogue of musical compositions from 1937 which includes a song titled 'That Nitty-Gritty Dance', by Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

They also say the phrase “nitty-gritty gator” was once used by Texas newspaper The Daily Journal in 1956 to mean a '”lowlife hip dude”.

However, phrases.org's isn’t totally impartial on the matter (it complains of a “general touchiness” over language at one point), so it's findings should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Is it racist?

While many publications argue a lack of evidence of the term's use during the time of slavery as proof the term does not in fact have slave-trade links, it’s not hard to see how the term could have once referred to a slave ship's debris.

A nit is the egg of a louse, a parasitic insect that would have been rife among the poor conditions those being transported for slavery would have been kept in.

And in American parlance, grits are coarse-ground grain, which would have been used as a cheap foodstuff to keep a slave ship’s cargo barely fed over the course of their long, transatlantic journeys.

Both things would almost certainly have been found at the bottom of a transport vessel.

What else is on the banned words list?

The July 2020 news of Sky Sports’ inclusion of the phrase on its banned words list came just days after a study found "evident bias" in how some football commentators describe BAME players.

The study looked at matches played in the Premier League, Italy's Serie A, La Liga in Spain, and Ligue 1 in France, and found 62.6 per cent of praise regarding a player's intelligence was aimed at those with lighter skin, while 63.33 per cent of criticism for a player's intelligence was aimed at those with darker skin tones.

Unfortunately, other words and phrases that may be on the list were not been revealed, but the Daily Mail reported that one member of Sky Sports’ staff claimed they now faced “a complete minefield” while on air.

“There are phrases that most people would have absolutely no idea would cause offence and that, to be frank, I'd be amazed if people were offended by,” they reportedly said.

“It's making what is already a difficult job harder and it feels unnecessary.”

What other everyday phrases are offensive?

Nitty gritty isn’t the only seemingly innocuous phrase to have origins in racism and other unsavoury parts of society.

The next time you call someone ‘uppity’, you could in fact be being offensive: during Segregation, racist southerners in America reportedly used the word to describe black people "who didn't know their socioeconomic place”, according to The Atlantic.

Closer to home, the term ‘rule of thumb’ is believed to derive from the an old English law that allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it is was no thicker than his thumb.

It’s even claimed the jubilant cry of ‘hip hip hooray’ has anti-Semetic connotations.

Germans are thought to have cheered "hep hep” – a German herding call – as they forced Jews from their homes during 19th century demonstrations.