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By Greg Bickert | 2022-03-20 | #wordsmatter #grandfathering #ethics #gender #exempt #legacy #neutral

I consider myself to be a considerate person. I try to think about how the words or phrases I use may be offensive or impact others, even when the word or phrase is part of the common vernacular. For example, why say “an owner must pay his or her fees…” when you can say “an owner must pay their fees”.

One term I try to avoid using is “grandfathering”.  If you are unfamiliar with this term, it means when a person or business is exempted from abiding by a new law or rule because of their legacy with the activity before that law or rule came into place.

For example, an owner of a strata lot who rented their strata lot to a tenant before a rental prohibition bylaw was approved would be exempted from the bylaw for a certain period. People will often say that the owner is “grandfathered” from the bylaw. However, the Strata Property Act does not use that term. Instead, it says that the “bylaw does not apply…”

I first stopped using “grandfathering” to favour gender-neutral alternatives. It felt wrong to me to say that a non-male person was “grandfathered”. When I searched to find similar words that could be used as a direct substitute for “grandfathering” I discovered that there was a nasty racial and gender discriminatory history behind the phrase.

The term comes out of the American south where many states enacted laws to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. These states enacted voter registration laws that required registrants to pass literacy tests, own land, or other such strategies to create significant restrictions on men who may vote. But, because poor and illiterate white voters would also be barred from registering to vote under these laws, the laws included clauses that granted exemptions for any man whose grandfather was entitled to vote prior to the civil war. These clauses became known as “grandfather clauses” or “grandfathering.”

Because women were not permitted to vote at that time, gender discrimination was already incorporated.

Over time, the term became used for any type of legal exemption due to the legacy of a person or business before a law or rule came into place. This despite that the “grandfather clauses” nowadays have nothing to do with the grand parentage of a person to determine whether they are exempted.

Frankly, when the term is introduced to someone unfamiliar with the concept, calling it “grandfathering” is just confusing. So, there is really no excuse for continuing to use the phrase, especially now that I am aware that the term is borne from racial and gender discrimination.

I now cringe when someone uses the word, the same as when someone casually uses a racial slur in a professional meeting. I avoid the term in my writing and speech. When someone uses it excessively, I will inform them that it is an inappropriate word (just as I would to someone who cusses many times in a meeting). And I hope you will do the same now that you know the term’s hurtful and discriminatory origin..