A grandfather clause is an exception to a rule that allows someone who previously had the right to do something to continue doing it even though the law forbids it to others. For example, when I turned nineteen, the state of New Jersey allowed me to drink alcohol. Later than year, they raised the drinking age to twenty-one, but since I was already of legal drinking age, I was grandfathered at that young age and could continue to legally consume alcoholic beverages. But why grandfather?
The term comes from discriminatory practices of certain Southern states against blacks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Southern states had laws requiring payment of a poll tax or taking of a literacy test before one could vote. The poor and illiterate were denied the right to vote. This would have been a race-neutral measure except for clauses in the state constitutions that exempted someone from poll taxes or literacy tests if their grandfather had had the right to vote. This meant that virtually all whites, whose grandfathers could vote before the imposition of these laws, were allowed to vote, while most blacks were denied the right to vote. Over the years, the term has lost the racial stigma and no longer connotes racial bias.
From the New York Times, 3 August 1899:
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 form, to grandfather, is more recent, dating to 1953. From the Kentucky Revised Statutes of that year:
All certificates or permits grandfathered shall be subject to the same limitations and restrictions.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Proquest Historical Newspapers)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton