Massachusetts Court Won’t Use Term ‘Grandfathering,’ Citing Its Racist Origins

2 mn read

A wine organization announced in June that it would no longer use the term “master” to refer to its high-ranking experts.

This month, lawmakers in New Jersey said county elected officials should be called “commissioners” instead of “freeholders,” a word that dates to a time when only white males could own land.

And on Monday, an appeals court in Massachusetts said that it would no longer use the term “grandfathering” because “it has racist origins.”

As Confederate monuments and other physical symbols of racism have begun to come down across the country, some commonly used terms have begun to drop out of circulation.

The latest example of the linguistic updating came in a footnote to a decision published on Monday by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

In the footnote, the court said the phrase “‘grandfather clause’ originally referred to provisions adopted by some states after the Civil War in an effort to disenfranchise African-American voters by requiring voters to pass literacy tests or meet other significant qualifications, while exempting from such requirements those who were descendants of men who were eligible to vote before 1867.”

The court’s footnote was in a case dealing with a local zoning dispute. Instead of using the phrase, the court referred to “a certain level of protection” provided to “all structures that predate applicable zoning restrictions.”

The court’s action on Monday comes amid a national debate about racism and whether to remove statues and public names of historical figures with links to slavery and oppression.

Some of those figures came to prominence primarily for actions that perpetuated slavery and inequality, like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Dr. J. Marion Sims, the 19th-century surgeon who performed experiments on enslaved women.

Statues of Confederate figures have been toppled by demonstrators in cities across the country. In August, a New York City commission voted to remove a statue of Dr. Sims in Central Park.

But words with direct links to slavery and oppression may be harder to detect, and addressing them may best be left to experts, said Nicole R. Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We can’t know the etymology of everything,” Dr. Holliday said. “That’s just too much to ask of speakers.”

Dr. Holliday, who is Black, said she would not correct her own mother if she used the term “grandfathered” in casual conversation, because doing so would be “actually rude, and it doesn’t accomplish the goal of creating a more equal society.”

But Dr. Holliday agreed with the Massachusetts judges who identified the term’s roots in suppressing the rights of Black people and decided to no longer use it. “This is the legal system and there are wrongs to be righted,” she said.

“It was very explicitly a racist legal practice,” Dr. Holliday said, noting that the term was an example of “professional jargon.”

Judges and legal experts can be asked to find a replacement for such jargon, she said. “That’s not really asking too much in my opinion,” she added

By Azi Paybarah



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