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Getting down to the 'Nitty Gritty' and other nonsense.

01:00 Wed 15th May 2002 |

PJB asked why the term 'nitty gritty' is taken by some as being offensive.

The reason is that there are suggestions, almost certainly missplaced, that the phrase referred to the debris left in the bottom of slave ships after their voyages, once the slaves remaining alive had been removed.

However, although the phrase was originally a Black American English expression, it is only recorded in print from the 1950s - some 90 years after the end of the slavery in the US, and so and it is extremely unlikely that it was around in slave-ship days but was enver written down.

Dr Jonathan Lighter, in the Random House 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".

As Home Office Minister John Denham discovered to his surprise, there are a string of words that have been given connotations they did not originally hold.

The traditional British way of describing good or bad people as 'a good egg' or 'a bad egg' (which hails from the facts that good eggs are nice and bad eggs are foul) is now given and entirely different meaning because it is wrongly associated with a perjoritative rhyming slang phrase 'egg and spoon' (coon).

This kind of misinterpetation forced the resignation of Washington public advocate David Howard after correctly using the word "niggardly" while discussing a budgetary matter with a black colleague. The word - from Old Norse - means "miserly" and has nothing to do with the similar-sounding racial slur.

And according to experts you can't say gobbledeygook any more! Although it was coined by Maury Maverick, a Texan lawyer on 21 May 1944 describing 'high flown' language used by officials as being like the behaviour of a turkey "always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity". Apparently these days it is taken to mean a certain sexual practise.

It is alleged that a gay information officer in the US refused to sit beneath a sign reading 'Queries'.

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