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?