Well, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty without shilly-shallying or dilly-dallying: we’re looking at another victim of phonetic profiling here, that kind of pseudo-etymological flim-flam that seeks to control others by imputing guilt for the very use of a word that just happens to bear a vague resemblance to a racist term. (See picnic – specifically, see Help stop a word-lynching.)
I mean, imagine. An innocent word is just walking down the street. Some self-appointed language cop sees it and says, “Hey, that word looks suspicious to me. Don’t like the colour of it. Looks a little bit too much like this bad word here. So it must be related to it. In fact, I’m gonna conjecture a story about it so I can bust it and toss it in the cooler.” We all know what happened to niggardly, eh? A word with purely Germanic roots tracing back to proto-Germanic and cognates in Germanic languages all meaning “stingy”, and it just happened to sound like the wrong thing. Well, here’s another victim.
Now, yes, I’m the first person to point out that you can’t escape the echoes and overtones of words. Niggardly pretty much can’t be used without a little hint of you-know-what-word. But – and this is the most important thing – it doesn’t automatically equate with intention. After all, no one has a problem saying suffocate or country even though they contain within them phonetic strings identical to those of very vulgar words. If you know someone will be offended by the use of the word, then, yes, intention comes into it; but one cannot escape asking what reason they have for being offended.
Typically the justification given is an etymological one, and that is where the arguments break down. Once someone claims picnic or niggardly or nitty-gritty is offensive on the basis of racism in the etymology, they have holed their argument below the waterline, because there is no racism in the etymology of any of these words. Moreover, they are committed to being offended by nice (which used to mean “foolish” or “ignorant”) and not being offended by silly (which used to mean “blessed”). Which is only lucky for them because I say that they are being very silly and not at all nice. But I mean that in the modern senses.
Today, class, we are going to learn rule number one of etymology: Coincidence is nothing. Evidence is everything. It is beyond easy to find sound coincidences. This was famously satirized in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the father invents an etymology for kimono on the basis of its sounding like the Greek word for “winter” (kheimón) and a kimono being a garment one may put on to keep warm in cold weather. True, I fill my word tasting notes with word plays, but while sound coincidences can (especially if you’re paying attention to them) affect how you receive a word (and they do sometimes affect the meaning of a word over time), they simply are not reliable guides to the origin of a word without further evidence. Oh, they can lead you to look for evidence. But if that evidence is not there, then you can’t make an assertion. And if there’s abundant counter-evidence (as there is, for instance, with picnic), then your theory is toast.
So, for instance, nitty-gritty is a word first attested in the 20th century. The oldest printed use of it so far found is from 1940, but it is generally considered to have been in use for at least a couple of decades before that. It was popular among black jazz musicians in particular back then, and it has always meant “the fundamental issues” or “the most important things”. Now, it happens that there is a conjecture being passed around (by people who don’t seem to think research is important) that it originated as a term for the dirt (grit) left behind after African slaves (ni…) had been unloaded from slave ships. The problem with this conjecture is that there is not even the merest scintilla of support for it. It is not really believable that this term could have been in use for two centuries without so much as once being documented. (There is also the matter of its documented uses always being positively toned and referring to essential things rather than negatively toned and referring to waste, but meanings can shift over time, as I have already pointed out.)
So, now, let us put that frankly obnoxious unsupported etymological conjecture about slave-ship origins behind us and let us taste this word on its own terms. Obviously there is an enough of an echo of “the n-word” for many people to have noticed it. On the other hand, no one is protesting that Niagara is racist (or if they are, I haven’t heard it), so we need not consider this word poisoned. The strong taste of its elements nit and grit, along with the tapping of the /t/s, gives it a certain get-dirt-under-your-fingernails edge, the kind of focus on specifics that can involve sifting through a lot of itty-bitty particles.
And then, yes, there’s that reduplication. We do like reduplication in English; it adds an ideophonic touch, that performative aspect to a word. There’s an insistence in nitty-gritty that isn’t there in nuts and bolts, for instance. Just as super-duper is a greater degree than super, and teeny-weeny is smaller (and cuter) than teeny or tiny, likewise nitty-gritty is more fundamentally fundamental for being reduplicative. And, hey, you want to dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s? Well, here are two i‘s and four t‘s – double your specificity!
And where else will this word lead us? I think Jamaica in the moonlight… What? Oh, those are words from “American Dream,” a song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jamaica is also where the reggae singer who called himself Nitty Gritty hailed from. So take your pick: country-folk-rock or reggae… and let’s get down to the nitty-gritty!
Thanks to Elaine Freedman for asking for nitty-gritty.