Let's Get Down to the Nitty-Gritty!

09 January, 2016

Hello and welcome to the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

This is a program about the history of words and how we use them in conversation. Today we talk about the noun nitty-gritty.

Nitty-gritty is one of many rhyming compounds in the English language.

In 2012, these Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York City probably wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of their issue. And they made New York City even more nitty-gritty during their protests. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
In 2012, these Occupy Wall Street protestors in New York City probably wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of their issue. And they made New York City even more nitty-gritty during their protests. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As with many rhyming compounds, nitty-gritty is informal. It is often used in casual conversation. It is a useful word that serves many purposes. When using it in a sentence, we often say "to get down to the nitty-gritty."

One meaning of nitty-gritty is the most important part or basic truth of any situation or subject. But, if you are not a fan of rhyming compounds or if you need to use a more formal word, you can use many other English expressions.

For example, nitty-gritty could be the heart and soul of a matter, the gist of a conversation or the essence of an argument. If you want to focus on only the most important part of a problem, you want to focus on the crux or core.

The nitty-gritty can also mean the bottom line or reality of a situation, as in this example:

The ideas behind planning a city are so interesting. I could talk about it all day!

I agree. But the city council needs to get down to the nitty-gritty. Washington, D.C. needs more apartments close to the Metro for young professionals moving here.

The nitty-gritty does not have to be part of a problem. Any matter or situation can have nitty-gritty.

The nitty-gritty can also mean the practical details that need to be finished. Used in this way, you can also say the nuts-and-bolts of a task or situation.

Here is another example.

We have talked about our vacation plans all week. Enough talk!

You're right. Now, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of booking flights and hotel rooms.

Nitty-gritty can also be used as an adjective. You can say someone is good at dealing with the nitty-gritty details of a problem.

In his song, "Jungle Gym," Jack Johnson sings about New York City being nitty-gritty. This song is from the 2006 movie Curious George.

It's a jungle gym
The city's nitty gritty but it's so much fun
We can take a ride go tell everyone
It's a jungle gym.

As with many words, the origin of nitty-gritty is unclear. Even though it is commonly used, some word experts have debated about the political correctness of "nitty-gritty."

Some word historians say that nitty-gritty refers to the debris – or remains -- left on the floor of slave ships. This reference may make the word offensive to some people.

However, there is no written proof that nitty-gritty originated on the floors of slave ships. Many word historians say that the claim is an example of a mythical word origin trying to become fact.

British word experts have also researched the origins of "nitty gritty." Word historians on the British website The Phrase Finder say that nitty-gritty first appeared in 1937 as a musical composition. The song ‘That Nitty Gritty Dance' was copyrighted by Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary says nitty-gritty was first used in 1956. The Online Etymology dictionary claims it was first used in the early 1960s, mainly by black jazz musicians.

But no one really knows for sure. What we do know is that these dates place the origin of the word long after slave ships and slavery in America.

We also know singer Shirley Ellis recorded "The Nitty Gritty" in 1963. It was a popular song and dance.

Let's listen to Shirley and get right down the real nitty-gritty.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Practice using nitty-gritty in the Comments sections. Or get to the heart of the matter by using words like "crux" or "core."

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Here is Shirley Ellis in 1964 performing her 1963 hit song "The Nitty Gritty" on the television show American Bandstand and her interview with host Dick Clark.

And here are some dancers on a television show from the 1960s dancing to "The Nitty Gritty." Check out the male dancer in front who really "gets into it!"


Words in This Story

gist - n. the main point or part

essence - n. the basic nature of a thing : the quality or qualities that make a thing what it is

crux - n. a main or central feature (as of an argument)

mythical - adj. based on or described in a myth : existing only in the imagination