Posts Tagged ‘ step dad ’

Origin of the term “step-child”

Is the word “Step” in relation to families a “…rose by any other name…?”

Old English. steop-, with connotations of “loss,” in combinations like steopcild “orphan,” related to astiepan, bestiepan “to bereave, to deprive of parents or children,” from P.Gmc. *steupa- “bereft” (cf. O.Fris. stiap-, O.N. stjup-, Swed. styv-, M.L.G. stef-, Du. stief-, O.H.G. stiof-, Ger. stief-), lit. “pushed out,” from PIE *steup-, from base *(s)teu- (see steep (adj.)). Etymologically, a stepfather or stepmother is one who becomes father or mother to an orphan, but the notion of orphanage faded in 20c. For sense evolution, cf. L. privignus “stepson,” related to privus “deprived.”

In my previous blog contribution I considered the origins of the word “family”.  I  concluded that the concept of family as a nuclear, genetically-linked group is a relatively modern concept emerging sometime in the 17th century and culminating in such pop-cultural jargon as “family values”, an undefined but politically-charged term emerging sometime during the political campaigning of the 1960’s.


Although there have been several notable attempts to provide a better name for “modern” families, “Step” continues to be the prefix of choice.  Unfortunately it doesn’t mean “take a step in the right direction” as though it were a part of a larger and progressive process.  Unfortunately, although ancient in origin, the concepts of sad and deprived children, as demonstrated by the etymology, are all too often reflected in today’s reconstituted families.


Just in case you think I’m spending way too much time worrying about the ideas behind these adoption-related words, apparently I’m not the only other person thinking about this stuff:


Family … What’s ‘blood’ got to do with it?

Sometimes I get “writer’s block”. This seems fundamentally unfair to me because I don’t consider myself to be a writer. I think it is especially cruel for a person to succumb to an affliction for which they don’t technically qualify. I have been blocked like this before and what I find is that research often helps. Exploring the etymology of a word that I consider “key” is especially helpful. As a social worker, working in the unique area of step-parent and adult adoption, I am moved to write about the modern phenomenon of blended families which, statistically, are becoming a norm in Western culture. It occurred to me that the obvious key word is “family”. Given their use and context all words have power, but I believe that an elite group of words exists whose power is somehow fused into their jumble of consonants and vowels in a way that makes them distinctly potent. “Family” is one such word. It occurred to me that rediscovering the concept of “family”, within the very history of the word, should prove a very effective means of laying siege to my writer’s block. Armed with this approach, I assailed the etymology sites available on the Internet.

c.1400, “servants of a household,” from L. familia “household,” including relatives and servants, from famulus “servant,” of unknown origin. The classical L. sense recorded in Eng. from 1545; the main modern sense of “those connected by blood” (whether living together or not) is first attested 1667. Replaced O.E. hiwscipe. Buzzword family values first recorded 1966. Phrase in a family way “pregnant” is from 1796. Family circle is 1809; family man, one devoted to wife and children, is 1856 (earlier it meant “thief,” 1788, from family in slang sense of “the fraternity of thieves”). (

The above definition is typical of what my research revealed and which, at first glance, did not afford the epiphany that I had so desperately hoped for. “Household” from the Latin familia seemed absolutely sterile, completely devoid of any of the inspirational adjectives I had expectantly anticipated. The fact that the word’s meaning included, “relatives and servants” was troubling given the direction that I wanted to go with this topic. Things got worse! “Servant” from the Latin “famulus”? I had really been hoping for something more like, “Latin for a group of people who love, respect and would throw themselves in front of a run-a-way chariot for one another”. As the etymology traced the word “family” through history, I was further assaulted with, “the main modern sense of “those connected by blood” (whether living together or not) as first attested 1667”. It occurred to me that, “the main modern sense” was very much pointing in exactly the opposite direction to the one that I had wanted to go. Dejected, I logged off.

Over the next few days, the concepts revealed within the etymology continued to ferment in my subconscious. In my heart, the word “family” was no less powerful than it had been before I clicked onto my computer. It occurred to me that something had truly been revealed but, within my modern context, I was failing to grasp it.

I found the reference in the etymological definition to “family values” and its description as a “buzzword” to be very revealing. I would have thought that the phrase would have had a far more meaningful and pedigreed origin as opposed to the buzzy expression originating in the middle 1960’s that, admittedly, didn’t have any actual list of identifiable values associated to it. I had never stopped to think about it until now. It was clear that the fusion of two elite words like “family” and “values” were socially irresistible and sufficiently powerful to exist without requiring any factual or intellectual foundation. Although the idea itself was without substance, it proved sufficiently compelling that its repetition, particularly among political and religious groups, had eventually elevated it to the status of a generally accepted concept.

This has caused me to wonder whether or not the Ancients had it right all along, and that our modern concepts of “family” are far more subjective, limiting, and ultimately superficial than those intended by the creators of the word. The Ancients had been unrestrictive and inclusive in their approach to the concept of family, making no reference to any connection by “blood” or lineage. Their definition reflects their acknowledgement that belonging to the “familia” simply meant being a member of the household.

Perhaps, the ancient definition of family is more in harmony with the modern blended family than we, as a society, are prepared to admit.