Monday, October 11, 2010

Red-Headed Step Child

At work last week I was recounting a situation and I said to a colleague, I felt a bit "like a red headed step child."
I received a very puzzled look.
He said, "I'm sorry, you've lost me. You felt like a red headed what?"

And so I tried to explain the meaning of the red-headed stop child reference. I did not realize it clearly was an American saying! Yes, upon further discussion, we could not move past this phrase because the British colleague was so intrigued by my use of this phrase.

Now, curious myself as to how this phrase came to be, I did a bit of online research where I found the following:

According to Urban Dictionary - Red Headed Step Child - A person or group treated without the favor of birthright. i.e. The boss treats this department like his red headed stepchildren. (note, this meaning was the one I was trying to use when I used the phrase in my conversation with a colleague.)

This bit about the origin of the phrase was quite interesting to me. I best watch myself and not use the phrase around any Irish I encounter! According to -
The origin of the phrase "red haired step child" dates to the 1830's & 40's when Irish emigrants began arriving in America. The newly arrived Irish were somewhere below free blacks on the social scale at the time, and lived in segregated communities. Then, like now, young men were having sexual relations with young women before marriage. Sometimes the men were Irish and the girls were not. This resulted in many out of wedlock children with that red Irish hair. When these young women did finally marry, usually to a young man not of Irish descent, the new husband was not particularly patient or sympathetic to the red haired step child and treated them harshly. The phrase is derogatory although many do not know its origin, it is still considered an insult to knowledgeable people of Irish descent, and should be avoided in polite conversation.

Another English/American conversation I found to be blog worthy....and one phrase I might avoid using for a while over here....


Iota said...

Very interesting. I'd never heard that phrase, and given it's history, it's probably best not to adopt it.

Anita said...

As a step-child (with hair that could resemble red in the proper light), I make that joke often. But I was unaware of the historical context.

I enjoyed reading the evolution of the phrase.... it is interesting to me how so many things that were bigoted or racists eventually morph into "standard language."

I wonder how many more phrases I use would have backstories that I would be surprised by.....

Anonymous said...

That's a fantastic story but I too had never heard the expression after having lived in America my first 30 years. East coast thing?