For a recent a freelance article a source used the phrase “grandfathered in” and added something to the effect “for lack of a better phrase.”

We had an awkward pause because I couldn’t immediately help this person come up with a different word or phrase to mean the same thing, and I acted like I knew why it was a bad phrase when I really had no idea.

We say a policy has been “grandfathered in” to allow for its continued use while a new set of rules applies going forward. In the case of the story I was writing “grandfathered in” referenced allowable uses at wineries before a 1990 ordinance was passed in Napa County.

“Grandfathered in” sounds innocent. Therein lies part of the problem. Taking phrases for granted without knowing how they came into being is likely going to get you into trouble at some point. I don’t think it’s about being overly politically correct. It’s about becoming educated and appropriately changing your vocabulary.

Like so many phrases that I learned at an early age I am now realizing there is more to them. Several origins are rooted in racism.

And so it is with “grandfathered in.”

When the 15th Amendment was ratified by the states in 1870 it prohibited racial discrimination in voting. To get around this rule states started imposing literacy tests, poll taxes and constitutional quizzes. Not only did these regulations target Black people, but poor white people were also caught in this discriminatory net.

In order to not have a rebellion by these white voters, states then came up with another test of sorts. People had to prove their lineage (as in their grandfather) was allowed to vote before 1867. This allowed whites to vote and most Blacks not to.

In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Guinn v. United States that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional. Poll taxes, though, were not eliminated until 1966.

Language is always evolving. It’s important people do as well. Words matter. We must understand that even if our intent is not to be hurtful, we may be causing pain by continuing to use words and phrases whose original meaning were damaging to others.

For my story on the wine ordinance I called it a “legacy law” to avoid “grandfathered in”.

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