Blue Funky Good Egg does the Nitty-Gritty

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I’ve had the blue funks all week, not that any of you could tell with my usual light and even-handed writing and sunny, calm temperament. This in spite of some good news about one of my domains that I’m just waiting final action on before *spilling the beans.

Having the blue funks isn’t a bad thing, but I have things to do and places to go and no time for being blue funky, so I’m pulling out all the stops this weekend to eliminate it: classic rock n’ roll, old black & white science fiction movies, cooking a nice meal, and walking in the rain.

As I was writing this, I wondered if the phrase ‘blue funk’ survived international borders. For instance, would it mean the same in the UK, in South Korea, Australia, or South Africa? How about next door in Canada?

Out of curiosity I did my usual when I’m trying to discover the meaning of a particular phrase: typed the phrase in quotes and the word ‘phrase’ into Google, and the first site that showed up is the World Wide Words page for the word funk, including the associated phrases and derivatives, such as funky. According to the author of this site, Michael Quinion, blue funk means different things in Britain then the US. In the US, a blue funk means being dejected, or slightly depressed. However, in the UK a blue funk is a state of fear or panic.

(Just as a point of clarification for my British readers, but I am neither panicky, nor in a state of fear.)

Exploring further in this intriguing site, I found this article on other odd duck phrases: “good egg” and “nitty-gritty”. According to Quinion, the British Home Office minister, John Denham, used the term “nitty-gritty” in a speech, and was chastised by members of the audience for using a racially offensive term. The Guardian investigated this and found that the police in Britain can’t use terms such as “nitty-gritty” and “good egg” because of possible connections with racial slurs such as “egg and spoon”.

Quinion wrote:


While sensitivity over language is not inherently bad, sometimes political correctness passes from needful consideration into a parallel world of misunderstanding and mealy-mouthedness. These days, it seems even PCs have to be PC. The chances of a British policeman using the phrase good egg in conversation with a member of the public is roughly the same as his pursuing an outfangthief or enforcing the rules on the right to turbary.

The terms “good egg” and “nitty gritty” are racially offensive? But I’ve used the both more than once. This deserved more investigation, so I searched on nitty-gritty as a phrase and found another article on the incident at the Telegraph, and this frankly humorous EZ Board thread, demonstrating what happens when a fact of this nature connects up with the loose free association typical of these types of sites.

However, back to more serious issues, including my use of a racial slur all these years. From the EZ Board discussion, someone brought up an association of “nitty-gritty” with the slave trade. Further Google investigation of nitty-gritty in association “slave trade” brought up this BBC News transcript of the investigation of the use of this term by the Denham. According to John Ayto, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang:

What it is supposed be is that how the story goes is that nitty-gritty originated as a term for the grit that accumulated in the bilges of slave ships and that therefore it has particularly painful connotations to Afro-Americans and to Blacks in general. But, as I said, that may be true, but I have never seen any evidence that it is true so the case remains open as far as I can see.

(From the transcript of the interview, I also found out that the phrase “rule of thumb” is from an old English law that men couldn’t beat their wives with rods thicker than the width of their thumbs, but according to Quinion, this is most likely urban legend. However, it most likely also couldn’t be used by the British police.)

Anyway, back to good eggs and the nitty gritty scandal. Quinlian summarized the incident with:


The matter became more convoluted the following morning, when John Denham wrote to the Guardian saying that he had checked most carefully and had established that there was no list of banned words in the police force. The Guardian report hadn’t said there was, but that officers could face a charge of breaching the codes on tolerance if anyone complained, a more subtle form of control that requires officers to self-censor every word (and yet still leaves them open to frivolous or malicious complaints).

Amid confusion and denials, the main loser here seems to be the English language.

And there you have it — a little light reading for a Saturday morning. And be careful what you say out there: Someone is Listening to you.

*spilling the beans (from Phrase Finder):

“When votes were taken in Greece, white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. Votes had to be unanimous, so if the collector ‘spilled the beans’ before the vote was complete and a black bean was seen, the vote was halted.”

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