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Remember the controversy ignited three years ago when a white Washington bureaucrat was fired after using the word “niggardly” in a meeting? Black employees said it sounded so much like the racial slur “nigger” that it didn’t matter a jot that the two words were etymologically unrelated. Incredibly, several respected academics and journalists later defended the firing decision, arguing that the mere perception of offensiveness gave sufficient grounds for it. And although the bureaucrat was later reinstated, it is probably fair to say that niggardly — an old-fashioned word meaning stingy — is no longer part of white Washington’s lexicon.

It was hard, at the time, to imagine that a more self-parodying instance of political correctness could ever emerge. But last month, one did, from no less unlikely a source than the Police Federation of England and Wales. According to numerous reports, the Home Office minister responsible for the police, Mr. John Denham, was misguided enough to use the word “nitty-gritty” in a mid-May speech to a Federation conference. Didn’t Mr. Denham know, a policeman in the audience demanded, that nitty-gritty had effectively been banned by some British police forces because of its supposed origin in the 18th-century slave trade (the theory runs that it refers to the lice- or nit-filled debris left in the bottom of slave ships after a voyage)? Reportedly, the audience backed the heckler, agreeing that police would be “disciplined” if they used such a term on the job.

It turned out that Mr. Denham didn’t know about nitty-gritty’s newly unacceptable status. But perhaps one reason was that the term is not in fact unacceptable. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang both identify it as a product of American Black English, with the earliest written example dating back only to 1956. Its origin remains obscure, but, as one language scholar observes, “It is inconceivable that [the word] could have been around since slave-ship days without somebody writing it down until the mid 20th-century.”

Lexicographers do agree that it most likely emerged as a rhyming “reduplication” of the word gritty, which means covered or filled with grit, and, by extension, firmness of mind or spirit (as in the John Wayne movie “True Grit.”) From that we get the familiar definition of nitty-gritty as the solid core or heart of the matter. English abounds in such quaint formations, with the pairs varying sometimes by a consonant (“higgledy-piggledy”), sometimes by a vowel (“tick-tock”). They are found everywhere from Shakespeare (“hurly-burly” and “pell-mell”) to the Beatles (“helter skelter”). Children’s speech is full of them — the “eensy-weensy spider,” “silly-billy” — and new ones are being formed all the time. The late ’90s gave us “fancy-schmancy” and the pop group Chumbawumba. Till now, nitty-gritty has been a well-loved, useful — and perfectly neutral — member of this group of strange, vivid words.

The question is, then, why this theory of its supposed racist origins arose at all. The most cynical opinion, expressed by a black British journalist last week, is that the whole Denham incident was a setup, a mocking retaliation by some members of the police for criticism of their racist treatment of blacks. (In support of this argument, it does seem out of character for policemen, of all groups, to be fretting about name-calling). A second view holds that the slave-ship story is yet another instance of an “urban legend,” the kind of sensational claim that can take on a life of its own on the Internet.

A simpler, but equally convincing explanation could lie in that little cluster-bomb of letters, “n,” “g” and “r.” Nitty-gritty looks like the supremely offensive epithet, even if it’s not. It looks more like it than even, say, the word “denigrate,” whose root really is the Latin “nigrare,” to blacken, from “niger,” meaning black. (Miraculously, it is still acceptable to say denigrate, a word that can legitimately be read as demeaning to black people; it can’t be long until it, too, is proscribed.) The sobering truth is that the word “nigger” carries such a freight of pain and humiliation for so many black people — and reflexive guilt for so many whites — that the barest echo of it triggers irrational responses. One man actually said of the Washington manager concerned about niggardliness,”Do you really think he didn’t notice he had to pass ‘nigger’ before he could get to the ‘dly’?” The answer, of course, is yes.

In the end, irrational emotion is no answer to anything, even grievous historical wrongs. And it would be hard to find a better example of irrationality than these continuing attempts to outlaw words that are not insults, just the innocent echoes of an insult. There are too many real insults and grievances to worry about without creating imaginary ones. It is to be hoped that the Denham incident will mark a turning of the tide.

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