13 JANUARY 1996, Page 21

Mind your language

`OH DEAR,' I said to my husband over the breakfast-time post, 'I think we're m for another OK.'

`What are you talking about?' he asked in what I thought was a surpris- ingly snappish tone, considering that he had a mouth full of kedgeree and was behind the newspaper.

What I was talking about was your previous unsuccessful attempt, dear readers (and mine too), to find a satis- factory origin for OK. And now a reader has asked the cheery and erudite liter- ary editor of The Spectator to adjudicate on the etymology of the term nitty-gritty. He referred the inquiry to me. Well I don't know.

Apparently there are two strongly held positions. One is that it comes from the name of crumbs at the bottom of a barrel of ship's biscuits on a slave ship. The other is that it derives from the nits and grits that labourers wash or comb from their hair after a day's work.

Neither sounds very convincing to me. The root meaning of the term is 'the heart of the matter', rather than 'bits and pieces'. It clearly comes from America and its earliest citation is from 1963 — and they didn't have slave ships then. The Oxford English Dictionary says its etymology is unknown, and when it says it is unknown it means that it is unknown. This is not all that unusual. Even the origin of ordinary -words such as dog are pretty obscure. Even so, if anyone has a good theory about nitty-gritty, I shouldn't mind hear- ing about it, nor would those clever men at Oxford.

Dot Wordsworth