Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The REAL Meaning Of "The Nitty Gritty"

Written by Azizi Powell

First off, despite all those who say so, the phrase "nitty gritty" has NOTHING to do with enslaved Black Africans or the crap that they left in the bottom of slave ships during their horrendous forced voyages to the Caribbean, the United States, or elsewhere. Also, "nitty gritty" has nothing to do with nits (the eggs of, or actual body lice or head lice). Furthermore, the phrase "nitty gritty" has nothing to do with gravel, or sand, or dirt - notwithstanding The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

And, the phrase "nitty gritty" has absolutely nothing to do with grits or hominy grits the food so named. Also, "nitty gritty" has nothing to do with the movies "True grit" or being "gritty" (stubborn, determined, preservering, hardnosed). Furthermore, "nitty gritty" has nothing whatsoever to do with being a "nitwit" (a foolish person), although some people foolishly believe all of those fake definitions - which is a low down cryin shame since "gettin right down to the real nitty gritty" actually means being the opposite of fake.

So how did the phrase "nitty gritty" become associated with the enslavement of Black people? Check out this quote from has been alleged that 'nitty-gritty' is a derogatory reference to the English slave trade of the 18th century. The phrase is usually used with the prefix 'getting down to' and there is a sense that, whatever the nitty-gritty is, it is at the bottom of something. The suggestion is that it originated as a term for the unimportant debris left at the bottom of ships after the slaves had been removed and that the meaning was extended to include the slaves themselves. That report became widely known following newspaper reports of an 'equality and diversity' course for Bristol Council employees in 2005. Had the firm that was conducting the training known that their claims were to reach so wide a public they may have chosen their words more carefully...

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 'nitty-gritty' has any connection with slave ships. It may have originated in the USA as an African-American expression, but that's as near as it gets to slavery. It isn't even recorded in print until the 1930s, long after slave ships had disappeared, and none of the early references make any link to slavery.

The first reference that I can find of the phrase in print is from the New York Catalog of Copyright Entries, Part 3 - Musical Compositions, 1937. That lists a song entitled 'That Nitty Gritty Dance' which was copyrighted by Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

The phrase isn't found in print again for some time and reappeared in several newspaper citations in print dating from 1956, for example, this line from Alice Childress' novel Like One of Family:

"You'll find nobody comes down to the nitty-gritty when it calls for namin' things for what they are."

Another is from the Texas newspaper The Daily Journal, in June 1956 and comes from a piece which gave examples of 'the language of 15-year old hepcats':
"She buys, with buffalo heads, ducks to the local flickers, but they prove to be corny and along comes a nitty-grittygator in a cattle train which she hops."

Unfortunately, the Journal didn't include a translation, but I have it on authority of several US contributors of the correct vintage that, in that context, a 'nitty-gritty gator' was a 'lowlife hip dude' and a 'cattle train' was a Cadillac.

That same source gives this meaning for "nitty gritty" - "The heart of the matter; the basic essentials; the harsh realities.". I believe that excluding "the harsh realities" part, that definition of "nitty gritty" fits the way I & other African Americans I know have used that phrase- as far as it goes.

It's interesting that the first documented reference to "nitty gritty" is the title of a novelty dance because that phrase was popularized in 1963 by Shirley Ellis' Rock & Roll hit "The Nitty Gritty Song" (let's get on down to the real nitty gritty). Shirley Ellis followed up that hit in the same year with the record "(That's) What The Nitty Gritty Is", but that song didn't chart nearly as well. Gladys Knight & The Pips also recorded a version of this song, but few people remember that version. (YouTube sound clips of each of those 1960s records are found below.)

In the context of dancing, "gettin right down to the real nitty gritty" means more than "getting to the heart of the matter or the basic essentials". When it comes to dancing, "gettin down to the real nitty gritty" means to dance REAL GOOD. It also means to be real in the way that you dance - to put aside fake societals notions of being stiff, or refined, or too controlled in the way you move. Gettin down to the real nitty gritty means to get FUNKY. "Funky" means to be hip, cool, hot, smokin, ace, fly, dynomite, the bomb, off the hook, off the chain, the shizzle, the sh*t, ill, sick, and any other superlative descriptor that originated or will originate from African Americans' creativity. But people are funky on the dance floor because they have allowed themselves to be real (to get down to their basic essence) and not worried about them working up a sweat and stanking up the place. ("Stanking" here is purposeful Black talk which means "really stinking"). People who are funky dancers don't smell good but they don't worry about that because their focus is gettin down on the dance floor (with "getting down" meaning to move down low, but also to work the dance -to show off, to out dance other people). And back in the days before chemical perms and before weaves, when Black females were funky because they were dancing funky, their hot comb straightened hair was liable to "fizz (back) up" to its natural state - a description alluded to in this verse from Shirley Ellis' record "(That's) What Nitty Gritty Is":

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
That's what the nitty gritty is

[Update Feb. 28, 2017: The full Lyrics and their online source are given below]

In that record, Shirley Ellis sings that the nitty girtty is a WAY of dancing, talking, walking, playing, and doing (whatever).

There's a nitty gritty way of doing
Boom digga boom... tell the beat

But if people want to say that nitty gritty is the name of a dance, Shirley is fine with that too:

Some people think the nitty gritty's a dance
You think it's a dance, do the nitty gritty
Come on and do the nitty gritty
Come on and dance the nitty gritty


But the implication is that that's not really what "nitty gritty" means. If that was the case, then she would have come right out and said so just like the singers do on so many other Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues instruction dances (for example, on Rufus Thomas' "The Funky Chicken" record and on Archie Bell & The Drells "Tighten Up" record).

But note that Shirley Ellis doesn't say that "nitty gritty" is a type of slavery or that "nitty gritty" is a type of head lice or body lice. That's because those definitions are modern day fake nonsense.

Since the 1960s, several African American dance songs have included the phrase "nitty gritty". But the song that everyone thinks of when they hear the phrase "nitty gritty" is still Shirley Ellis "The Nitty Gritty Song" (and not so much the Gladys Knight & The Pips version of that song). Which ever song floats your boat, remember when you get right down to the real nitty gritty, you gotta get real & you gotta keep it real!


The Nitty Gritty

Uploaded by negrosounds on Jan 18, 2011

shirley ellis - (That's) What The Nitty Gritty Is

Girlwiththegreeneye, Uploaded on Feb 29, 2012

YOUTUBE VIDEO [added to this post on July 13, 2015]


EMPRESSGLADYS, Uploaded on Apr 8, 2008


Yeah, mmm, yeah
Do you know that some folks know about it, some don't
Some will learn to shout it, some won't
But sooner or later baby, here's a ditty
Say you're gonna have to get right down to the real nitty gritty
Now let's get right on down to the nitty gritty
Now one, two nitty gritty
Now yeah, mmm, nitty gritty now
Ooooowee, right down to the real nitty gritty
Ooooowee, can you feel it double beatin', I keep repeatin
Get right down to the real nitty gritty
Say it again double beatin'
Get on down, we gotta get right down to the real nitty gritty
Let's get, let's get right on down to the real nitty gritty
It's all right, it's all right
Get on down, get on down
Get right down to the real nitty gritty
Listen to me now
Oooowee, ooowee
Come on and let the good times roll
Let the music sink down in to your soul
Double beatin', keep repeatin'
You gotta get right down to the really nitty gritty
Get on down, get on down
Talkin' about the nitty gritty
Get on down, get on down

Written by Lincoln Chase • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Music Sales Corporation


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  1. is not quite right. I came across the same 1937 citation, but not from New York State, but rather in the Library of Congress copyright listings. More specifically, the registration had been submitted on December 9, 1937 in unpublished form. There are really two possibilities from there--either 1) Gibbs coined the term for the music/dance and it gradually took off or 2) he adopted an existing slang term for his music. If it's the former, the rest, as they say, is history. If it's the latter, the citation is pretty much inconsequential, aside from being the earliest available in print. The OED on-line has its earliest quotation from 1940 for the noun. The 1956 quotation serves as the earliest for the adjective. There are a few other citations in Google Books from the 1940s and more from the 1950s. Beware that not all of them have correct dates.

    The "basic essentials; harsh realities" line appears to come straight from the OED definition.

    Google Books is not the only source. Another clarifying citation appears to be
    Richmond Afro American - Oct 25, 1947
    Still Hope for Hampton [Editorial]
    "As an educator he displayed nothing more than a set of vague ideas about education and democracy which only became more nebulous the closer he got to the nitty-gritty of pulling them into practice."

  2. Anonymous, thanks for sharing that interesting information.

    My guess is that Gibbs used the existing phrase "nitty gritty" for that 1937 song title because he had heard it (probably among African Americans). But, of course, that's only a guess.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. There is no reason why you have to explain what you think "Nitty Gritty" means. Seems like you have some deep seated problems.

  5. T.Roy, I should have mentioned in the post that this post is presented for historical, sociological, folkloric, aesthetic, and entertainment reasons.

    While those reasons are "deep", in the context of this post, I don't consider any of them "problematic".

    If you want to think so about me, that's on you.


    1. Sounds to me like T.Roy is the one with the problems!

    2. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous.

      I agree.

      The "As" at the end of my comment is a typo, but maybe I didn't catch it for subliminal reasons ;o)

  6. I just re-read my comment-almost one year later.

    For the record, the word "As" (or the letters "A" & "s") at the end of my comment are a typographical error and mean absolutely nothing.