The (Etymological) Origins of the Wicked Stepmother

the_seven_deadly_sins__wrath_by_dantetyler-d5s42mmSome 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.

Image credit: dantetaylor deviantART



13 thoughts on “The (Etymological) Origins of the Wicked Stepmother

  1. I hope so too, you are awesome, no one can think otherwise. it’s a great read knowledge wise. Thank you Suzanne.You work hard and we get the fruits of your knowledge. 🙂

  2. That is very interesting! I really had no idea that the “step” was related to loss or privation. Thanks for doing this research (and indeed all the research that you share here!) I am sure that you are indeed an awesome belle-mère! Of course, “belle-mère” in French also refers to one’s mother-in-law, so I have wondered whether or not the “belle” was un peu…”idéaliste?”

  3. When I was growing up people’s parents started getting divorced when I was about 9 or 10, so like 1980ish. My folks stayed together but I’d see how my friends and neighbors changed once divorce and remarriage happened. I saw it, then, as something dark and scary and wrong.

    I specifically got my divorce when my now almost 12-year-old daughter was about 2 1/2. She remembers none of it. Two and a half years later when she met the women who would be come “her other mom” and later “mom” we had none of these issues. All three girls called each other sisters from day 1. My kids think my wife and I are wicked but only because we don’t let them do whatever they want.

    Good read

    1. I remember feeling the same way when I was a kid and one of my friend’s parents split up. And I’ve heard horror stories from people who grew up with an unpleasant stepparent. I never expected to be one, but I couldn’t imagine my life without my stepchildren. You guys have a beautiful family — and in my opinion, family is more about love and support than it is about blood.

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment, Lance! 🙂

  4. I am a step child, with a stepdad I love.

    This was so incredibly interesting to read, I love to know the history of words and phrases. it’s so cool to find out where things originate. Thank you for sharing this with us, I feel like I’d like to just sit and talk to you all afternoon. 🙂

      1. If I could make a living just listening to these kinds of stories I’d be a happy girl. Have a great day.

  5. Very interesting. Here’s a twist for you: my husband is my (grown) kids’ stepfather, but he started out as just their Godfather! I wonder if that comes from Good Father?

    1. That’s a great twist! But the word godfather has everything to do with God (well, with religion anyway). The original responsibility of a godparent was to sponsor the child’s baptism and guarantee the child’s religious education. It’s been around since the late 1100s, and comes from the Old English godfaeder.

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