Q&A: Stepmother, stepfather, stepchild… Why ‘step’?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking things step by step…

Q: Hi AWC, how was Mother’s Day for you?

A: Just fine – and good to see you’re using the correct way of spelling “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day”; the apostrophe in the right place!

Q: I had a question about stepmothers this week.

A: Is it why are they always wicked in fairy tales?

Q: Well no, but that is a good question. It’s actually about where the “step” came from in stepmother, stepfather, stepdaughter etc.

A: The term only started being used in the 1950s, when photographers and genealogists decided that in family photos, anyone who wasn’t a blood relation had to stand on a stepstool to make them easier to identify.

Q: Wow, really?

A: Of course not, that’s complete nonsense.

Q: I hate you.

A: The actual term started with the kids – via the Old English “steopchild” way back around the 8th century.

Q: How strange, it seems such a modern thing to have stepfamilies. Did it mean the same thing back then?

A: It didn’t entirely. In fact, if you were kicking around ye olde times as a steopchild, it meant specifically that you were an orphan. Your parents didn’t run off with anyone – they died.

Q: Well, in that case, why didn’t they just called them orphans instead!

A: Um, sure. Except the word “orphan” was still 500 years away.

Q: Ah, that is a problem. But why “steop”?

A: Well, Old English got it from the Proto-Germanic (via Dutch, Norse and a few other cold beardy languages) word “steupa” – to do with “loss” or being bereft of some kind – clearly relevant for an orphan. This was related to the word “astiepan” – meaning “to deprive of parents”. So basically, it’s not your typical nuclear family.

Q: Sidebar – why is it called a “nuclear” family anyway? Surely it’s not because at Christmas all the family members react and have meltdowns?

A: Cute, but no. The word “nuclear” in an atomic, blasty, melty sense has been around since 1841. Meanwhile, the term “Nuclear family” is a sociological term (relating to the “central” nucleus of an atom) and only coined in 1949 by an American anthropologist.

Q: Right, good to know. So, back to stepchildren.

A: Yes, so traditionally to be a stepchild meant that your parents were dead. And stepmothers and stepfathers were those who cared for these orphans.

Q: Well, technically that still happens today.

A: Sure, but back then, at least one biological parent had to be dead for “step-anything” to kick in. These days, a death is not needed for a stepfamily to come about. More often it’s through divorce.

Q: Ahhh okay, I get it. So it’s like Luke Skywalker’s stepparents in Star Wars, yes?

A: Well, not really – that was his aunt and uncle due to him being orphaned. So that’s still the old meaning, not the newer one.

Q: Then why does Obi-Wan say “divorce is strong in this one”? Bahahaha.

A: …. That’s ten seconds of our life we’re never getting back.

Q: Haha, sorry. Oh, one last question. I see something like “stepson” written also as “step-son” with a hyphen. Which is best?

A: Good question. The original spelling up until around the 1800s favoured the hyphen, but not today. The Macquarie Dictionary only recognises the non-hyphen versions and we suggest you do the same. The only exception might be in describing unusual step combos such as “step-uncle” etc.

Q: Good to know. So, anything further to add on stepfamilies?

A: Not really, except just to say that if you’re not biologically related yet you’re in an official parent/child/sibling relationship, then “step” right up!

Q: Great! Thanks for this step-by-step guide…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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