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BBC rejects complaint against Laura Kuenssberg for saying ‘nitty gritty’

The BBC has rejected a complaint against political editor Laura Kuenssberg over her use of the phrase ‘nitty gritty’ – which anti-racism campaigners claim originates from the slave trade.

The award-winning journalist used the well-known term while speaking on BBC political talk show Brexitcast as she discussed the departure of top Downing Street press chief Lee Cain.

But the remark sparked a complaint from a listener about the use of the phrase, which some anti-racism campaigners claim originates from Transatlantic slave ships.

The term was reportedly banned by Sky Sports last year over the concerns about its origins – which are disputed by some linguistics experts.

Programme bosses threw out the complaint against the journalist, who is paid up to £250,000-a-year in her top-ranking role at the BBC.

However the determined listener refused to back down and the grievance was escalated to top BBC complaints chiefs.

Now the corporation’s executive complaints unit has backed the decision of programme makers and dismissed the objection.

The award-winning journalist used the well-known term while speaking on BBC political talk show Brexitcast as she discussed the departure of top Downing Street Press chief Lee Cain.

WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS OF THE TERM ‘NITTY-GRITTY’? 

Today ‘nitty-gritty’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning: ‘The fundamentals, realities or basic facts of a situation or subject. The heart of the matter.’

The OED says that the word can be traced back to at least 1940 and originated in the United States in African-American usage.

But the origin of the phrase is uncertain and disputed – and many consider its roots to be in the slave trade, so its use is banned in some institutions such as the police force.

This theory suggests that the expression refers to the debris, such as lice and grit, left in the bottom of slave ships once the slaves have been removed from the hold after a long voyage.

But there is no evidence linking the term to slavery in the first printed examples found of its use.

Phrases.org, which researches the origins of such terms, lists the earliest example of ‘nitty-gritty’ in print being from a catalogue of musical compositions from 1937, which includes a song titled ‘That Nitty-Gritty Dance’, by Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

There are no printed examples of the phrase after that until the 1950s, when its use was varied.

Some examples show ‘nitty’gritty’ used in its modern sense, but others are more obscure.

In one example, according to phrases.org, a ‘nitty-gritty gator’, as used in an article in Texas newspaper The Daily Journal in June 1956, meant a ‘lowlife hip dude’.

It has also been suggested that ‘nitty-gritty’ refers to head lice – ‘nits’ – or ground corn – ‘grits’ – but again there is no hard evidence.

Phrases.org concludes that ‘it is most likely that the rhyme was formed as a simple extension of the existing US adjective “gritty”, meaning determined or plucky.’

Today ‘nitty-gritty’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as meaning: ‘The fundamentals, realities or basic facts of a situation or subject. The heart of the matter.’ 

Ms Kuenessberg used the term while talking about the resignation of Lee Cain in November last year.

While speaking about the departure of the Downing Street Director of Communications – who had been in the role under Boris Johnson since July 2019 – the political editor said: ‘Before we get into the nitty gritty for saddo nerds like us who are fascinated by all this soap opera…’

But while the term’s modern day interpretation is generally accepted to mean ‘getting down to basics’ of an issue, the origins of the phrase are unclear.

The OED says that the word likely originated in the United States among African-Americans.

Anti-racism campaigners suggests that the expression refers to the debris, such as lice and grit, left in the bottom of Transatlantic slave ships once enslaved Africans  had been removed from the hold after a long voyage. 

But there is no evidence linking the term to slavery and the first printed examples found of its use are in the late 1930s – more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery in the US.

Phrases.org, which researches the origins of such terms, lists the earliest example of ‘nitty-gritty’ in print being from a catalogue of musical compositions from 1937, which includes a song titled ‘That Nitty-Gritty Dance’, by Arthur Harrington Gibbs.

There are no printed examples of the phrase after that until the 1950s, when its use was varied.

Some examples show ‘nitty gritty’ used in its modern sense, but others are more obscure.

In one example, according to phrases.org, a ‘nitty gritty gator’, as used in an article in Texas newspaper The Daily Journal in June 1956, meant a ‘lowlife hip dude’.

It has also been suggested that ‘nitty-gritty’ refers to head lice – ‘nits’ – or ground corn – ‘grits’ – but again there is no hard evidence.

Phrases.org concludes that ‘it is most likely that the rhyme was formed as a simple extension of the existing US adjective ‘gritty’, meaning determined or plucky.’

Speaking to the Times, Gary Martin, a language researcher who runs phrases.org.uk website, and who has investigated the expression, said: ‘There is no evidence to support the suggestion that ‘nitty-gritty’ has any connection with slave ships.

The corporation's executive complaints unit has backed the decision of programme makers and dismissed the objection

The corporation’s executive complaints unit has backed the decision of programme makers and dismissed the objection

Ms Kuenessberg used the term while talking about the resignation of Lee Cain (pictured) in November last year

Ms Kuenessberg used the term while talking about the resignation of Lee Cain (pictured) in November last year

‘It may have originated in the USA as an African-American expression, but that’s as near as it gets to slavery.’  

SportsMail reported last year that commentators and match reporters had been warned against using the phrase ‘nitty gritty’ amid concerns over its possible origin links to slavery.

The phrase was one highlighted by the broadcasting giant in a series of emails which are said to make up part of its ongoing drive to ensure that staff are aware of the origins of the language that they use while on air.    

However one Sky Sports employee told SportsMail in July last year that the emails had made it ‘a complete minefield’ while on air.

The source added: ‘There are phrases that most people would have absolutely no idea would cause offence and that, to be frank, I’d be amazed if people were offended by.’

The debate over the phrase was highlighted almost two decades ago in a row over its use in policing.

In 2002, then Home Office minister John Denham told delegates at a Police Federation conference in Bournemouth that it was time to ‘get down to the nitty gritty’ on police training.

But officers kicked off over the use of the phrase, which they said had been banned in policing due to the debate about the term’s origins.

The article was reported on by the BBC at the time. MailOnline has contacted the BBC for a comment. 


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