What on earth do we call our step-brother's fiancée?Henry Lawford

It used to be so simple – the answer to that innocent question, “so, tell me about your family”. It’s the hallmark of first dates, new friendships, and small talk at parties. It used to require a sentence – mum, dad, brother, whichever pets were currently in residence. It now requires a small essay, and potentially a quickly sketched family tree.

Families are messy things and always have been. A brief, procrastinatory foray into the OED dates the ‘step’ prefix back as far as the eighth or ninth century, with ‘half-brother’ and ‘half-sister’ dating a little later, which I think goes to show that the make-up of your family has long been a pretty flexible matter. The particulars of my family are fairly unusual, but I soon learnt that most people have their own version of this messiness. When it comes to the particular structures of family, almost everybody has a story or two to tell.

Families are messy things and always have been

The real minefield to navigate is judging when it’s appropriate to tell yours. It’s a balancing act of how much you reckon your interlocutor really wants to know and how much personal information you feel open to divulging. It doesn’t always feel right to unleash several years of family history on the blissfully unaware questioner, not to mention that my precise family structure is no one’s business but my own. And yet this, too, can have its problems. I ended up in quite the mess with student finance this year because I couldn’t be bothered to explain to the nice man on the other end of the phone that my mother’s partner was a woman. As a result, some documents in my application got filed wrong - a nasty surprise, as I’m sure you can imagine, when I checked my bank account in the middle of Michaelmas Term.

The other matter to contend with is that these step-words only go so far. Just when you’ve conquered step-mother and step-brothers you suddenly find yourself wondering how exactly you are supposed to refer to your step-brother’s fiancée. What are your step-niece and step-nephew going to grow up calling you? My suggestion of ‘st-auntie’ was rejected on the grounds that it was terrible.

When it comes to the particular structures of family, almost everybody has a story or two to tell

The huge capacity of the ‘step’ term, and the multitude of relationships that can fall under it, are both a blessing and a curse. These words are useful, but also sometimes frustratingly vague, covering a whole range of levels of relationships. For some people, their step-siblings are people with whom they’ve grown up; they’re as close as if they were related by blood. For me, it’s a little different – I met the people I would technically describe as my step-brothers when we were all basically adults, and I’ve never lived with them. I call them my step-brothers to avoid precisely the kind of minute explanation of my family that I’ve been discussing here, but it doesn’t always feel totally honest or totally accurate. My step­-mum, on the other hand, is someone with whom I lived for several years and who really does feel like an extra parent at times. It’s annoying to feel like you’re constantly misrepresenting such close relationships, in a weird kind of linguistic limbo.


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Having thought about this at some length, I have two solutions to propose. The first alternative is that we simply invent the words we’re missing - if the terms ‘step-mother’ and ‘step-daughter’ are well over a thousand years old, I think we’re overdue some new ones that could cover your step-in-laws, your cross-generational step-relatives and the whole half/step combo situation.

Or maybe they had it right in the olden days. I’m thinking of those Jane Austen novels that referred to all vague relations as dearest cousins. I rather like the idea of running around calling all my family members ‘my dearest coz’, much like a character out of a Renaissance drama.

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