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Q From Mitch Kramer, Vermont: In Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Snawley refers to himself as father-in-law of two boys he palms off to Mr. Squeers’ miserable school. As we would refer to him as their step-father, I was wondering if the latter term is relatively new and whether in-laws for the spouse’s family is a recent term as well.

A Dickens is very clear about the meaning of the term. Mr Snawley says, “The fact is, I am not their father, Mr Squeers. I’m only their father-in-law” and goes on to say, “You see, I have married the mother.”

The law here is Canon Law, specifically the rules of affinity that prohibit any marriage between relatives. At one time, the rules not only prevented blood relatives from marrying, but also relatives in which the only connection was one through marriage. The most famous case was that at one time a man could not marry his deceased wife’s sister or a woman her dead husband’s brother. The sister of a man’s dead wife was considered as much off limits for marriage as if she were his own sister — she was a sister “in law”. (In the UK, such unions were explicitly made legal by Parliament early last century, as was marriage to the children of either — one’s niece or nephew by marriage.)

All these -in-law forms came into the language in the fourteenth century. For several centuries, they could also be applied to other relationships created by marriage. A daughter-in-law or son-in-law could be the child of a spouse from a previous marriage, since they were also covered by the Canon Law rules. As Charles Dickens makes clear, the reverse relationship of father-in-law was often applied to what we would now call a step-father.

The step- prefix has had a mixed history. The source is an old Germanic word that could mean bereaved or orphaned (in Old English, a stepchild or stepbairn was an orphan). Stepfather, stepmother and stepdaughter are much older than the -in-law equivalents and are known from Anglo-Saxon times, with stepson, stepbrother and stepsister coming along much later. However, Dr Johnson noted in his Dictionary in 1755 that only stepmother was in common use.

The position shifted in the early to middle nineteenth century for unknown reasons, with the -in-law endings shifting to relationships wholly created by marriage and the step- ones coming into much wider use for those where a relationship existed beforehand between one’s partner and another person. Around the same time, we start to see new step- forms appearing, such as stepfamily, step-parent, step-nephew (surprisingly old, in a novel by Bulwer-Lytton of 1857) and step-niece (from about 1890), showing how deeply the change had penetrated into the language.

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