Get the Word! Etymology of "Grandfathered In"


Welcome everyone to another episode of Get the Word! The series focusing on the etymology, or history and origin, of words in English. Go to the website, for more content, and for the audio transcript of this episode.

Listen for these words today:
Enfranchise - to ‘enfranchise’ means to give the right to vote to someone
Disenfranchise - to ‘disenfranchise’ means to deprive or remove someone’s right to vote
Voter suppression - voter suppression is a strategy that is used to prevent or discourage certain types of people from voting, in order to influence the outcome of an election.

Today we’re focusing on the term ‘grandfathered in’. This term is more common in North American English and is listed in the dictionary as ‘informal’, so let me make sure everyone understands what it means first before we look into the history of the term. To ‘grandfather’ means to exempt someone or something from something, typically a law or some sort of regulation or rule. It’s listed in Oxford as intransitive, so, if you remember, that means that you don’t need an object with it.

Often, it’s paired with the preposition ‘in’, as I’ve already said, but sometimes it’s not, as in the example from Oxford, “Smokers who worked here before the ban have been grandfathered”. So what is this saying? A new rule was implemented, stating that smoking was now prohibited in that building, or restaurant, or whatever it was. BUT, all the smokers who were already there before the new rule have been allowed to continue smoking. That means only NEW employees will be banned from smoking. If I were the new employee, I may not think that this rule was fair or made much sense at all. I mean, if the ban was to eliminate the harmful effects of secondhand smoke for the nonsmokers in the building, then they’re not really accomplishing much until all those folks grandfathered in either leave the company or die or something.

The example above is just a company rule, or regulation, but this is also a legal term that applies to court based decisions. A more legal definition of ‘grandfathered in’ is exempting a person or entity from certain provisions within a law, statute, ordinance… So, the folks grandfathered in may not be exempt from EVERYTHING within the law or provision. Here’s an example from the US Legal website: “ the Federal Assault Weapons Ban made it illegal to sell and own a semi automatic weapon that was manufactured after the date the law went into effect. Weapons that were manufactured before that date were "grandfathered in" and were allowed to be legally owned and sold.”

Okay, so here we can say the thing being grandfathered in was not a person, but all of the weapons created before the law went into effect. As you can see, the process of grandfathering can become pretty controversial pretty quickly. One side could argue that it would not be fair to take away a gun that someone had already legally purchased and already owns, and the other side could argue that there will still be plenty of semi-automatic weapons out there for many years to come because of this ‘grandfather clause’.

So, not only is the process of grandfathering itself a contentious subject, so is the origin of the term. So let’s finally get into etymology.

I’ll start with the term ‘grandfather’. Originally, as a noun, this just means the father of one of your parents. The origin dates back to the early 15th century with French roots, because if we take this word apart we have ‘grand’ which is Old French and originally from Latin. But the word ‘father’ is not from French, so we have a combination of different etymological origins here. There is evidence that the word ‘grandfather’ may have cropped up in the early 15th century, but the origins of these different components of the word is more complex than that, as we can see. The word for ‘father’ in French is ‘pére’, (pronounced similar to ‘pair’.).

Okay, so what was around in English before the the word grandfather? We have two words that were used before this that eventually fell out of fashion. First we have grandsire, which dates back to at least the late 13th century, and is still listed in Oxford simply as an archaic term for grandfather. So, we clearly still have this word ‘grand’ floating around in the English lexicon at that time. Grand originally was used in English to refer to family relationships. So this makes sense. Grandsire, and then eventually grandfather; father being of Germanic origin and having very ancient Indo-European roots. This would explain why we have similar words ‘pater’ in Latin and Greek.

IN FACT, there is a fascinating observation that has been made about how words for mother and father seem to be similar all around the world, which may have something to do with the first sounds that babies make when they are first learning how to speak; that these sounds are the easiest for babies to create with their mouths. Therefore, it would be a case of parents hearing these sounds from their babies first, and THEN attributing these sounds to themselves. This could be a whole episode in itself, so let’s put a pin in that for now.

- Break -

Back to ‘grandfather’. There’s also the Old English ‘ealdefæder’. This word is not in the Oxford dictionary anymore, however I did find a definition of ‘eldfather’ still being listed in a dictionary, which had a few other definitions, on top of being a synonym for grandfather, including father-in-law and also a synonym for ‘forefather’ or ‘ancestor’. You may also recognize the first syllable here, ‘eld’ as it is related to words like ‘elderly’ which is a common word to describe older people in their golden years and also stems from German, the word ‘eld’ itself having a definition in English that can just mean ‘old age’. As in this gem of a sentence I found, “a beard white with eld”; or this even more peculiar sounding example: “tall for his eld”. He is tall for his eld. Here is just a direct replacement for ‘age’. He is tall for his age.

So obviously the word itself is not controversial, but how it came to be used as a verb and as an action has roots in the old Jim Crow South here in the United States, which was a time when southern whites implemented many practices that tried to prevent black people from truly obtaining the rights and freedoms that were owed to them.

One of these practices was voter suppression, in other words, one group with more power and influence, trying to prevent other groups from voting. After the American civil war, black men were given the right to vote. However, as we’ll see, many people did not want them to have that privilege, and tried as hard as they could to prevent these newly enfranchised people from voting.

Let’s travel back in time, shall we?

It’s the American south, between the end of the American civil war in 1865 and the turn of the 20th century. Former slaves who were men were now legally allowed to vote, and this angered and worried many of the white southerners at the time. Southern states who didn’t want black people to vote started to pass state amendments that forced voters to take certain steps that they never had to take before, including paying a poll tax (a fee you must pay at the voting center) and passing a literacy test (proving you are able to read and write). Newly freed slaves, of course, did not have much money or any money at all, and many did not know how to read. This made it very difficult and often impossible to go and vote on voting day.

These types of voter suppression tactics continued well into the 20th century, and we continue to see voter suppression tactics used in my country to this day.

To give you an example of the often incredibly confusing and unfair literacy tests given, go to the website to see a literacy test from 1964 from the state of Louisiana. This 30 question literacy test was expected to be completed within 10 minutes, and, while this was supposed to be the literacy test given to everyone who wanted to vote, plenty of evidence points to the fact that these tests were given out disproportionately to black voters, or that white voters were given different, easier tests to take before being allowed to vote. Questions on the test mentioned above include:

- “In the space below, write the word ‘noise’ backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward. “


- “Spell backwards, forwards.”

or how about this one:

- “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”

and then when you’re feeling the time crunch and, most likely have already run out of time, it ends with these two wallops:

- “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”  


- “Draw five circles that one common inter-locking part.” (REPEAT: yes, this is how it is written. You can see for yourself on the website.

If the test taker didn’t know the difference between ‘print’ and ‘write’, for example, or made ANY misstep on the test, that person then failed the test and wasn’t allowed to vote.

These efforts disenfranchised many black voters. They felt that they simply could not vote. This also meant, however, that some poor, illiterate white voters were not able to vote, either, despite the differences in the tests that were given to white voters compared to black voters. Voter suppression tactics often target the poor, even white folks who are poor, but obviously at the time it was considered more important to make sure the white vote stayed as strong as possible. Lawmakers in certain southern states decided to create certain laws that would allow these illiterate white voters to still be able to vote. These laws became known as grandfather clauses.

I am going to try my best to explain the grandfather clauses. It’s a little tricky. Remember, a “clause” is one part, one provision, or one change, to a new or already existing law, or bill, or amendment. In other words, this little change was added to the law in the American south. Here is how it worked:

Freed black men (remember, just men, not women) were given the legal right to vote in the USA in 1870. So, of course these freed black men did not have any parents, or grandparents, who were allowed to vote before 1870. Well, that was not the same for white people of course. They DID have parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents, who were able to vote before 1870. Therefore, grandfather clauses were added in order to allow illiterate white men to vote, as long as his relatives, his grandfather perhaps, had been registered before 1867, three years before the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, which, again, allowed freed black men to vote.

You see? In other words, when these clauses became part of the law, in the late 19th century, you were most likely automatically allowed to vote, even if you were illiterate, if your grandfather had been allowed to vote a few decades earlier, before 1867. The poor illiterate whites had become grandfathered in. They were given certain legal privileges because of who their grandfathers were.

This type of practice happens all the time. For example, when my country changed the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, certain areas added a grandfather clause to the new law, allowing everyone who was still between the ages of 18 and 20 at the time, to be grandfathered in, allowing them to still legally drink alcohol below the age of 21. This is still an example of a grandfather clause, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with the 18-20 year olds’ grandparents. They were still given an exemption to the new law because of certain factors that existed before the law was passed.

By the 1950s, this practice, the action of creating a grandfather clause, had become known as grandfathering. Since then, it has become very common to use the word ‘grandfather’ as a verb.

However, some people would love to have this term removed from official use. As I said before, this is still a common term used in legal cases. In certain places in the USA, this term is no longer being used in court decisions because of its racist origins*. What are your thoughts? Should we keep this term or try to remove it from the lexicon? Living languages are always changing, after all. I’d love to hear from you. Email me at . You can also leave a message for me on the website,

Before we end the episode today, I want to share with all of you a very nice message I received from a listener in Argentina.

Messages like this keep me motivated to add more content. Thank you so much Nicky.

We also received an anonymous comment on the website: Thank you Mike, for your podcast!. I hopes you keep make content in your podcast! Thanks again Mike!

If you want to leave a message go to Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Patreon page is no longer active, at least at the moment. If you would like to support The English Sessions, then please go to There, you can click on the “Support” button and make a monthly contribution to The English Sessions to keep this podcast going. You can support The English Sessions for less than $1USD. Every bit helps. Thank you all for supporting this podcast.

Until next time, this is Mike signing off.

Resources: *

Voter Suppression Image - Getty Images


  1. brilliant analysis!

  2. those tests were absolutely shocking, it felt confusing from the first question already!


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