Grits (Canadian political term)

I learned a new Canadianism this morning. The Liberal Party just won the federal election last night, and today the news outlets are referring to them as the Grits, as in this article from the Toronto Star:

The Grits were elected or leading in all 32 ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, turning their backs on the 13 incumbent Conservatives and six New Democrats.

But the name for the Liberals is a very old one, and even predates the modern political party. The OED has citations from 1884, but antedatings can be easily found.

The earliest citation I have found is from John McMullen’s 1855 History of Canada. In 1850, radical progressives dissatisfied with the reform-oriented Baldwin-Lafontaine government formed a new party. McMullen writes:

This state of things speedily produced a split among Reformers, and a new party arose into influence, which had already been denominated in American party phraseology, “Clear Grits.”

The story goes that one of the leaders of the group, David Christie, dubbed it such because they were “all sand and no dirt, clear grit all the way through.” This quotation, while often repeated, has no verifiable source and may be apocryphal.

As an aside, the same split among the reformers also produced the loose fish, which were “political things that have no fixed principles, and who invariably espouse that cause which pays best.”


“The Origin, Composition, and Futurity of Political Parties in Canada.” No date. Found on Google Books under the title The Report of the Toronto Board of Trade, 27 February 1856. (This volume appears to be a bound collection of various articles and reports with no clear title page. This particular article is undated, but probably was written in the early 1850s. It’s a prime example of how Google Books metadata is not to be trusted. I only include it because it contains the “loose fish” quotation, which I find humorous.)

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. grit, n.1

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