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Q From Hayden Brockett: I was wondering how English came to use the step- prefix in terms of, say, step-father. The online M&W dictionary says it’s from Old English, related to Old High Germanic from a word that means ‘to deprive, bereave.’ I can see some sort of a connection here, but was the step-parent to have bereaved the family, or merely come around as a result of bereavement at the loss of the original parent?

A The prefix was used in Old English to mark someone who had been orphaned (so stepbairn, stepchild). At that time, to be orphaned could mean the death of either parent, not necessarily of both, as we would commonly mean today. So someone who married the surviving parent became parent to the orphaned children, to the stepchildren, and so by an obvious extension of usage became known as a stepfather or stepmother.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Oct. 1998

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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: 10 October 1998.