The expression "grandfathered in" or similar expressions like "grandfather clause" aren't always immediately clear to people for whom English is a second language.

But I'm hard pressed to come up with a synonym that captures the same meaning while also being easy to comprehend, and preferably more inclusive (the history of grandfather clauses isn't that great, and the notion that someone's grandfather would need special exemption seems less than ideal).

Is there a synonym (either a single word or a phrase would be fine) to express the idea of something being allowed or special-cased for existing instances but for which future instances are prohibited or discouraged?

  • Something that is 'grandfathered in' would be ageist -- "Discrimination based on age" thefreedictionary.com/ageist (in this case the thing that is younger than the older thing being 'grandfathered in' would be what's discriminated against)
    – user180089
    Jul 13, 2016 at 3:55
  • @V0ight: right... that's exactly why I want to avoid the term. I don't want to imply "ageist", I want to imply "preexisting condition", and I'm looking for a synonym that doesn't carry a negative connotation, if one exists. Jul 13, 2016 at 5:11
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    Best solution is to state the specific rule. "There is an exemption for X". Saying something is "grandfathered in" is very vague aside from its other problems.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 12 at 8:53
  • @StuartF, if one is discussing a specific legal provision of this kind, it is indeed best to just state it, and not label it as a grandfather clause (and that should be posted as an answer). Sometimes, however, one wants to discuss the provisions of this kind generally, and needs a general term for them.
    – jsw29
    Apr 12 at 21:50

4 Answers 4


Just so it's abundantly clear where this unforgivable expression actually comes from:

The term "grandfather clause" originated in the American South, way back in the 1890s. At that time, several Southern states developed and enforced the clause as a way to get around the 15th Amendment, and thus prevent black Americans from utilizing their then-newfound right to vote. The "grandfather clause" stated that black men could only vote if their parents or grandparents were able to vote before the year 1867 — which was, conveniently for racist lawmakers, many years before black Americans were permitted access to voting rights.

So yes. "Legacied" is a good alternative.

  • 3
    Great explanation of the history. The answer could be improved for the purposes of this site by providing references for both the history and the alternative term. Jan 1, 2017 at 1:42
  • 1
    While the answer is correct about the history of grandfather clauses, you should elaborate on why you think "legacied" is a good alternative. (For example, you could add something like the following: "It has none of the negative connotations or associations that 'grandfathered' and related terms do, and clearly conveys the intended meaning.") Right now, most of the answer doesn't actually answer the question (it just explains the origin of the term "grandfathered"); only the last line addresses the question, but you don't support your answer by explaining how "legacied" is a good alternative.
    – V2Blast
    Jan 13, 2022 at 17:35
  • 1
    You should probably also confirm whether "legacied" can be used as a verb in this way; a preliminary Google search doesn't seem to support this usage (even if others may be able to understand the intended meaning).
    – V2Blast
    Jan 13, 2022 at 17:41

Here are a couple of words that could work when describing a grandfather clause (which always makes me think of Santa).

"Legacy" (n.)

something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past

Merriam Webster

Legacy is a common alternative to "grandfathered." For example: "There are three bars in town that are permitted to stay open until 4am, because of their liquor license legacy." I should note, that in common usage it is often coined "legacied" which I cannot find a definition for, but would be used as in, "The liquor license has been legacied." Meaning that the license was covered under a grandfather clause.

"Heritage" (n.)

a : something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor : legacy, inheritance

b : tradition

Merriam Webster

This speaks more to the "we've always done it this way" mentality than a legal permission.

  • 2
    Especially in computing systems legacy solutions are a common term. E.g, "I developed a new functionality, but old systems have to stay on the legacy solution."
    – Helmar
    Jul 13, 2016 at 14:25
  • Legacy doesn't really fit. Legacy can just mean "old", without the implication of "this exists now solely because it existed before". "grandfathered in" has that implication.
    – chris
    Apr 14, 2022 at 20:42

Special Case:

noun, exemption based on circumstances

  • But I specifically want to include the connotation that things are only special-cased for historical reasons ("because that's how they always did it") and that that special case does not apply to new instances. Jul 13, 2016 at 1:53
  • In that case, I don't think there would be any other word or phrase that would be able to have the same "exact" meaning of grandfathered. But maybe, those who are in the community would be able to think of a proper word/phrase. Jul 13, 2016 at 1:58
  • Actually, the term historical exemption is neutral and covers the right ground without baggage. Apr 14, 2023 at 1:30

Don't think I came here to pick a fight. I actually found this thread because I too was looking for a more acceptable form of the expression. I've been trying for a couple of years to think of a better way to say "grandfathered in." But after reading some of the replies it got me thinking.

Maybe the reason we are having trouble coming up with a more acceptable term for this practice, is that the practice itself isn't acceptable. Maybe excluding someone from certain requirements, just because they have already been doing what they do since before those requirements were created isn't justifiable. Deciding that certain people are exempt from a rule just because we already know them, or rely on them seems to be how we got into this mess in the first place.

I don't know. Just something to think about.

  • When 'grandfather clauses' are justified and when they are not justified is a complex question, which cannot be dealt with in a couple of paragraphs. It is, in any event, well outside the scope of this site, which is devoted to English language and usage, and not to politics, ethics, legal theory, and suchlike.
    – jsw29
    Apr 12 at 21:42
  • Thanks for letting me know. I found this thread by a google search and didn't really investigate what the scope of the site was about. I was just trying to participate in the conversation. Lesson learned. Sorry.
    – Mozzie
    Apr 20 at 17:43

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