Some of you may know that, in addition to many other things, I am also a stepmother. A recent conversation with my stepdaughter got me thinking about the origins of stepmother. You see, in French, a stepmother is called a belle-mère, which essentially means beautiful-mother. I wanted to know why the English version was so, um, boring.
It turns out that it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s quite fascinating. Let me tell you why.
I had always assumed that the step in stepmother came from the same place as the steps I take each day. However, while both steps come from Old English, the one you do with your feet comes from the word steppan, which can be traced back to the West Germanic stap-, and from there to the Proto-Indo-European root, stebh-, all meaning something to do with stepping, treading, or placing firmly.
The step that gave us stepmothers (and stepfathers and stepchildren) comes from the Old English steop-, which indicates loss. For example, the word steopcild means orphan. And the related words, astiepen and bestiepan, mean to bereave or to deprive someone of parents or children, respectively. Steop– comes from the Proto-Germanic steupa-, which means bereft or pushed out. Steupa-, in turn, comes from the Proto-Indo-European steup-, meaning to push or knock.
Because of its origins, the words for stepmother are very similar in other Germanic languages (German: Stiefmutter; Dutch: stiefmoeder; Danish: stedmor). Personally, I prefer the French belle-mère, or the Spanish madrastra, which translates to mother-star. But understanding where the step comes from helps to put the wicked stepmothers of fairy tales into context, don’t you think?
As for myself, I hope my stepchildren only ever think of me as wicked in the F. Scott Fitzgerald sense of the word, by which I mean awesome.