“Grandfathered In,” Racism, and a Copy-Editor’s True Calling

by Jul 31, 2018Linguistics2 comments

It seems that the phrase “grandfathered in”—as in, “Smokers who were already working at the company were grandfathered into the new health plan, but new hires won’t be able to get on if they smoke”—has its origins in overtly unjust, racist practices. This was sent to me by an editor from a website for copy-editors. And those unjust and racist practices, by the way, were truly terrible. Hateful.

But I’m left wondering why a copy-editor thought a bunch of other copy-editors should know all this. It suggests to me that this copy-editor has forgotten what his job is: gauging the reaction of the intended audience of a piece to every piece of meaning in that piece. Effectively zero English speakers today are aware of the allegedly racist origins of the common phrase “grandfathered in.” Effectively zero readers will react negatively to it—until now, now that they’ve read this article.

This copy-editor has just torpedoed, to a tiny degree, the work of the authors he’s called to serve. Now a few readers out there may possibly tsk-tsk a writer for using a common English phrase that he or she has little reason to know has origins in racism.

Almost all of us are almost totally ignorant of the history of almost all of our words. And that’s okay. The words eleven and twelve derive from the base-6 numbering system—should we stop using them for modern base-10 math?

Search the prose of black writers and I’ll be willing to bet that they use the phrase just as much as writers of other ethnicities. It’s like snafu: it just doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

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  1. deeplygrateful

    Cultural sensitivity is increasingly important as more people become aware of the etymology of words and phrases. We must also be aware that said words and phrases might also have even older meanings than the ones people think they just discovered.

    I believe that each time such words or phrases are encountered and someone bristles, it becomes a launching pad for a further conversation. It is an opportunity for reconciliation and/ or learning about the other person’s background and opinion. Oftentimes we do not understand our privilege to use a term without it meaning much. I used the term “ghetto” for a long time, but then after years of being one of the only white members in a church plant in Cabrini Greene (which was torn down during my time at Moody Bible Institute), I learned just how degrading that term was. Did I mean it to be degrading? Not at all. I thought I was being fun by naming my 1998 Dodge Grand Caravan with 200,000 miles a Ghetto Wagan…. but then my pastor lovingly told me the history of the term ghetto and how painful it was to have that term placed upon urban housing projects (and what the people living in those projects felt when a white person called it the ghetto).

    That is one such example where in my ignorance I simply thought ghetto meant inner city. Coming from a small rural town, I also just thought inner city meant the inside of a city… and didn’t think about the phraseology implying a being trapped or excluded from the opportunities which are growing in the burgeoning suburbs.

    A word of phrase is a symbolic demonstration of a meaning- expressed through sounds or markings. One’s intended meaning does not change a historic meaning of a word, nor does a historic meaning change one’s intention. This is why we have to be diligent to know where and what could go wrong with the massive amount of (mis) communication which can happen that does not involve the actual symbols.

    All that to say, I do not think that the copy-editor was doing a service by making everyone aware of the racist origins. Unless it was brought to the attention of the editor by a reader/ customer that this was a stumbling block for a demographic (and not just an assumed stumbling block), then this just caused confusion as to the intentions of the writers who had previously used the term.

  2. trjones1792

    I address this tension the same way I address tension in many other areas of culture.

    Once I come across offensiveness to certain groups, it’s difficult for me to use that practice. Even if the meaning may have all but died, once I know about it it’s hard to take that practice up and use it. On the other hand, I do my best to give the benefit of the doubt to others who might use it.

    On certain things, it’s also hard to give that benefit of doubt because the issue is so important. That’s how I feel about euphemisms for God. I know other people may not know the history behind those terms, but Commandment 3 is a big enough deal to me that from time to time I will share that history, even outside my family. I’m glad I have spent so much of my life in environments that excluded them from their “style manuals” (sorry for the scare quotes).

    I wonder whether this copyeditor feels about racial equality something like the way I feel about the third commandment…