The Grammarphobia Blog

Grandfather clause

Q: I’m in the construction business and I use the term “grandfather clause” all the time. But the other day, somebody jumped down my throat for using a racist expression. Is this true?

A: The term “grandfather clause” usually refers to a provision exempting an existing activity from a new regulation affecting it. Under such a clause, for example, an existing business might be allowed to remain in an area rezoned from commercial to residential.

Although this specific usage has no racist overtones, the expression can also refer to now-defunct statutes some southern states adopted to exempt poor whites from the poll taxes and literacy requirements that kept blacks from voting.

The racist statutes, adopted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generally provided that anyone (or his descendents) who had been allowed to vote before African-Americans were enfranchised would be exempt from the anti-black requirements.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “grandfather clause” is in the Jan. 22, 1900, Congressional Record: “The grandfather clause will not avail those citizens who … are unable to pay their poll tax.”

But Dave Wilton, an independent language researcher, reported on the Linguist List forum in 2006 that he had found an even earlier one in the Aug. 3, 1899, issue of the New York Times: ”It provides, too, that the descendents of any one competent to vote in 1867 may vote now regardless of existing conditions. It is known as the ‘grandfather’s clause.’“

The verb “grandfather,” meaning to exempt from new regulations, is undoubtedly derived from “grandfather clause.” Or, so Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines it: “to permit to continue under a grandfather clause.”

But the verb, which is often accompanied by the prepositions “in” or “out,” doesn’t appear to have been used in the racial sense. All five citations in a 1993 addition to the online version of the OED use the verb only in the modern way. Here’s an example from the Kentucky Revised Statutes of 1953: “All certificates or permits grandfathered shall be subject to the same limitations and restrictions.”

As for your original question, the use of “grandfather clause” in the modern sense is not racist and doesn’t have anything to do with race, but the expression has its roots in an infamous chapter in US racial history.

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