Q: Being from the south, we eat grits on a fairly regular basis, and the discussion inevitably turns to telling the chef (I use that term loosely) how good the day’s preparation tastes. So here’s the question: “The grits is good” or “The grits are good”? (Of course, nobody fixes grits like Mom.)
A: The word “grits” is considered a plural noun, but it can be used with either a plural or a singular verb, according to both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
So it’s acceptable to say either “The grits are good” or “The grits is good.” I like “are” better myself.
You may be surprised to learn that “grits” is a very, very old word with roots in the early days of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.
The word was written as grytt when it was first recorded in English around the year 700, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The plural was grytta or gretta. It originally meant bran, chaff, or mill dust, but that sense is now obsolete.
By the 16th century, the term was being used for oats that had been husked but not ground or oats that had been ground coarsely – that is, coarse oatmeal.
In the United States, of course, “grits” usually refers to corn, not oats. The first citation in the OED for this usage is from 1886, but Merriam-Webster’s gives 1876 as the earliest date for “hominy grits.”
As for “hominy” (hulled, dried, and boiled corn), it’s believed to come from an Algonquin word for parched corn, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
The word (spelled “homini”) first showed up in 1629 in the writings of Capt. John Smith, who refers to “Milke Homini, which is bruized Indian corne pounded, and boiled thicke, and milke for the sauce.”
Finally, here’s a yummy quote from The Yearling, the 1938 novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “Jody heaped his plate. There were grits and gravy, hot cakes, and buttermilk.”