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Red-headed stepchild

Q From George Gorski, USA: What is the origin of the phrase beat you like a red-headed stepchild? I hear it often these days, and most explanations seem contrived when I look it up. It seems to me that stepchild is a euphemism for bastard, but that is only a guess. Can you satisfy my curiosity?

A I’d never heard it before, at least not to remember it, but a look at various online sources confirms your perception that red-headed stepchild has become a moderately common term, although your fuller version is rather rarer. A recent appearance:

Considering he spent the last two minutes of the fight beating Penn like a red-headed stepchild with hammer-fists and elbows but was unable to get The Prodigy to tap, I’d say Fitch’s killer instinct remains questionable.

The Toronto Sun, 2 Mar. 2011.

The meaning of red-headed stepchild is clear enough: it’s used to describe a person who is neglected, mistreated or unwanted. The evidence shows that it was originally American; it has spread not only to Canada but also to the UK, though it’s unusual here and almost always appears in writing by Americans.

It goes back some way. The earliest example I can find is this:

From the day the Republican party came into power the South has been treated like a red-headed stepchild.

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) 29 Jun. 1910.

There are several threads to the origin of the term. A red-haired child born to a family of different colouring immediately caused questions to be asked about the morality of its mother and stepchild here may indeed have been a euphemism for bastard. A true stepchild in a family frequently suffered physical abuse from the children and parent to whom it was unrelated. Add to this that red hair was uncommon enough that any person with it was distrusted and disliked, being thought ill-disciplined, and a red-headed stepchild risked double jeopardy.

Some writers have suggested that it’s specifically the result of anti-Irish feeling in the US, some Irish men and women having red hair. I can’t confirm that.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Aug. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 August 2011.