[Ads-l] Racist origins of "Grandfathering"

Fri Dec 18 20:24:55 UTC 2020

I thought I had previously posted on grandfathering, but I can't immediately find it in the archives.

The conventional history of the verb "to grandfather," which appears to be essentially correct, is that it arose in connection with restrictive voting laws that were intended to disenfranchise African-Americans, but included conditions intended to prevent the disenfranchisement of white voters, such as a provision that voters would not be disenfranchised if their grandfathers were voters.  While I have not confirmed the existence of provisions specifically referencing grandfathers, the historical existence of these restrictive voting laws is well-documented, and the intent to disenfranchise African-Americans is explicit, not in the text of the laws themselves, of course, but in the public discussions at the time.  Geoffrey's link, which focuses on the laws rather than on the term, gives more information about them.

However, it should be understood that the term as originally used was intended to be critical of restrictive voting laws.  Here's the earliest I initially see, which is a 43-year antedating of the earliest example in the OED.  From the Henryetta (Okla.) Free-Lance (Sept. 23, 1910) (Newspapers.com):

"There is a certain amount of justice in the world that cannot be entirely destroyed, even in Oklahoma.  A Tulsa judge has decided that negroes who have been "grandfathered" out of their franchise cannot be made to pay poll tax.  That amendment will cost the republican party a few votes, and the state of Oklahoma $80,000 in poll tax."

Note that, at the time, African-Americans tended to align with the Republican party, so it was primarily Democrats who sought to restrict the vote on racial lines for partisan reasons - a reversal of the current environment.  Here is another early example of the term, also critical of it, as the use of "Jim Crow" shows.  From the (Ardmore, Okla.) Daily Ardmoreite (July 29, 1920) (NewspaperArchive), in a letter to the editor:

"In your "Stories of the Street" on July 28 you publish the following:  "Sam Butler, local attorney and prominent republican politician, with democratic proclivities, was displaying the first Harding button the streets of the city today."
"Now, Mr. Editor:  I want to denounce Red Snider for writing me up like that.  He knows as well as anyone that I am a Registered, Grandfathered and Jim Crowed Republican, and I don't like to be slandered that way.
Very truly,
Sam H. Butler"

Note that both of these are from Oklahoma, which may be indicative of the term's geographic origin.

In its current use, grandfather, v., is entirely devoid of racial implications.  In addition, it's a very handy word, with no equivalent term that so succinctly expresses the intent that a new statute or regulation will not cause those already operating in reliance on the pre-existing rule to lose their ability to do so.

John Baker

From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of Geoffrey Nathan
Sent: Friday, December 18, 2020 2:01 PM
Subject: Re: Racist origins of "Grandfathering"

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There are, on Facebook (and probably elsewhere) lists of such
words with 'racist' origins that we are encouraged to stop using.
Some of them are the usual etymythologies, but, as far as I can
tell, this one is real. However, its actual origins seem to be
contested. Some argue it has to do with state laws in the South
that said only those whose grandfathers could vote were
allowed to vote. However, there is evidence it predates
Reconstruction, and originated in the North:


Now, the question of whether we should not use words
because of what they meant over a century ago is a different
question from whether the etymology is correct...

For instance, the etymology of 'black' is an Indo-European root
meaning 'glow, burn', but no current native speaker of English
knows that, nor are they subconsciously invoking the original

That, however, is probably a question for the sociolinguists
and psycholinguists among us.


Geoffrey S. Nathan
WSU Information Privacy Officer (Retired)
Emeritus Professor, Linguistics Program
geoffnathan at wayne.edu<mailto:geoffnathan at wayne.edu>

From: Bill Mullins<mailto:amcombill at HOTMAIL.COM>
Sent: Friday, December 18, 2020 12:09 PM
Subject: Racist origins of "Grandfathering"


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Subject: Racist origins of "Grandfathering"


News to me.

OED has 1953 for the relevant sense.

4. transitive. North American. To exempt from new legislation or regulation=
s, usually because of some prior condition of previously existing privilege=
. Frequently with in (also with into, out). Also in extended use.

1953 Kentucky Revised Statutes 2190/2 All certificates or permits grand=
fathered shall be subject to the same limitations and restrictions.

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