Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Since before the days of The Brady Bunch, divorce and remarriage have been creating loving blended families across the country. There are few Americans who don’t know someone who can be described as a stepchild or stepparent, if they aren’t one themselves. While today those labels are common and unremarkable, the origin of that prefix step- is much grimmer. The original stepchildren weren’t created by divorce, but by death.
That step- finds its roots in a verb that means “to bereave”; in a time when divorce was rare — and the average life span was much shorter — stepchild (steopcild in Old English) referred to a child who had lost one or both parents to death. A stepchild was a bereaved orphan.
That loss wasn’t erased when an orphaned child’s remaining parent remarried or when he or she was taken in by another family: The step- remained, and the stepchild became a stepson (steopsunu) or stepdaughter (steopdohtor).
Not long after the introduction of stepchild into English, we also start finding references to stepfathers and stepmothers to describe the biologically unrelated parent. As life expectancy rose and divorce became more common, those step- words took on the meanings we know today.
A strange thing happened with the word stepchild in 19th-century America: We started seeing the idiom “beat like a red-headed stepchild,” implying abundant abuse of something unwanted. We find the phrase used more and more in print from the 1910s to around World War II. (Why specifically a red-headed stepchild? There are a number of theories, including anti-Irish sentiment and the tradition that Judas Iscariot was a red-head.)
In modern times, though, the obvious connection to child abuse and the implication that stepchildren are unwanted make this phrase at best tone-deaf, and sometimes downright mean. It’s best avoided except when used ironically by actual red-headed stepchildren.
Bonus trivia: French speakers have a lovelier way of talking about the people in a blended family. In French, stepdaughter and stepson are belle-fille and beau-fils — literally “beautiful daughter” and “beautiful son.”
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