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Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Nitty-gritty: The finer points of political correctness
nitty-gritty n, The fundamentals, realities or basic facts of a situation or subject. The heart of the matter.

ORIGIN: according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the term started as US slang but its origin is unknown. Editor of the Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green, speculates it is merely a reduplication of the standard English word gritty.

ORIGIN 2: one theory is that "nitty-gritty" refers to the debris left in the bottom of a slave ships at the end of a voyage. Hence, use of the term is highly contentious and has been banned by the police.

USAGE: ignorant of this, 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. Officers later said it was just an example of how the English language had been turned into a minefield of political correctness.

DISPUTED: some wordsmiths are sceptical that the word has such a long history. Dr Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, 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."

DISPUTED 2: 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]."

LESSON: when it comes to being PC, best check the finer point first with a PC.

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15 May 02 | UK Politics
Minister attacked over 'racist' term
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