Redheaded stepchild

I’ve noticed the phrase “redheaded stepchild” several times in the last few months, as in this quotation from “Entertainment Weekly”:

Now, I know that I’m seeing the phrase recently because of selective perception; it’s been around a while. But where does it come from? And, more importantly, why don’t redheads and/or stepchildren protest its use? It’s obviously meant to be, um, disparaging.

Speaking as a redhead, my guess is that we get a lot of abuse from our peers as youngsters, which drops off drastically in our teen years. By adulthood, if our hair is still red (mine is) we frequently get more praise than abuse. The casual use of the phrase “RHSC”, mixed in with all the compliments, is not a problem.

Any step-children want to chime in?

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I’m not a step-child, but my son is (my ex- is remarried).

I personally hate that expression.

BTW, my son has brown hair.

My take on the phrase has always been that a redheaded stepchild is most obviously not related to you. This reflects poorly on your manhood and reduces any sense of family you might have towards the child and often the child receives more beatings for those reasons. But I can’t seem to find any evidence for that.


I’ve heard the expression in two forms, one as redheaded stepchild, and the other as unwanted stepchild. Unwanted makes more sense to me, and it’s always “beat you like a ____ stepchild.” Never shooting.

He weathered a firestorm of agony and did not break.
And while Yori raged against his unbending
courage, we took Kyuden Hiruma back.
His loss is great, but so is the gift his suffering brought.
-Yakamo’s Funeral

Yeah, I do usually hear it as “beat you like a redheaded stepchild,” although I’ve also seen it as an adjective – such-and-such is the redheaded stepchild of the organization. I’ve also heard the “unwanted” version.

My wife’s a redhead, as are several relatives; none of them appreciate the phrase. When we first dated I was surprised to hear how often red hair gets you teased – I don’t think it had ever occured to me as something to remark on.

I’d have forgotten about the phrase by now except that a) my wife’s a redhead, as mentioned above, and b) I haven’t been able to find any history or origin of the phrase. That just makes me all the more curious.

As a lifelong redhead myself, I’ve always believed the phrase was related to the fact that redheads have a reputation for being difficult, rebellious etc.

The first part, redheaded, incdicates the type of child (rebellious or disobediant) while the second part, stepchild, indicates that there will be no mercy on the part of the beater. (no offense to stepparents anywhere).

I’d gotten the impression it refers to, uh, “questionable parentage” of one kind or another–the odd kid. I’ve just been rereading some of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long stories, he had very strong views on the peculiarity of redheads, claiming everyone from Gilgamesh to Judas as members of the clan (I’ve never been sure just when Heinlein slipped from satire to senility)!
The redheads I’ve known would have all stood out no matter what their hair color–I wonder how much is cultural, or if there actually is something genetic about it.

Since no one in this day and age would advocate the beating of stepchildren, red-headed or not, why not redirect your ire at a “rented mule”?

Oops. That’s the problem with trying to be PC. Now the animal-rights nutcases will be after you.

I am the bio father of a redheaded girl. I have dark brown hair as does my wife so we heard all the jokes. The mail man actually had red hair so he heard a lot too.
( Actually I firmly beleave she is a changling, for a lot of weird even eerie reasons besides the hair color.)My take on the phrase has always been similar situations in the past,but with tenuous biolological links to the “father”. Rather than admit that he wore the horns I can see the father and mother claiming it was a stepchild ( adopted kids were once referred to that way). Chances are “Dad” didn’t look too favorably on that kid.

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”-Marx

Ummm, I’m a step-child, and I always found the phrase amusing enough. I used to work with a woman who swore up and down that it was “bald-headed step-child,” which just doesn’t work as well or make sense. She was stupid and wrong.

Sorry, I’m sure that was no help whatsoever.

“I’ll tell you a secret, baby - maybe you can’t do better - gotta settle for second best” - the Judybats

Valerie: I think that person might be mixing two phrases: The aforementioned RHSC beating, and the Arkansas favorite: “I’ll snatch you bald-headed!” I have to assume it translates to “I’ll grab you so hard, it’ll tear your hair off.”

Don’t worry about the animal rights people. The anti-genetic engineering crowd will be all over you for having a hybrid animal in the first place.

Personally I think a lot of popular expressions have no logical source. Some things just sound funny or right and find their way into the language.

“Popeye? Hm? He’s not much of a judge of women!” King Blozo

This topic came up a while back (but you wouldn’t know it by the SDMB search engine) and got to 80+ entries, none with any factual backing. My WAG was that the red hair was a constant and obvious reminder that the kid wasn’t yours.

Someone postulated that it had something to do with antisemitism and certain jews being born red-headed (haired?). I didn’t buy this at all.

I prefer “Cincinnatti Bengal” to rented mule myself.

Variations in rural Indiana include being worked (or beaten) like a borrowed mule or a dog. My personal favorite is, “They’re workin’ me like a borrowed redheaded step-mule!”


In 19th Century England red hair was considered unlucky, unfortunate, etc.
Perhaps an anti-Irish bias.

Back then blond (and “fair” anything) eye lashes, high body fat and small breasts were in vogue. Have we progressed?? :slight_smile:

Yeah, everyone has heard that phrase, but as far as the etymology is concerned I have no idea. The cool thing is that the phrase has worked it’s way into our vernacular as a way to express, most often, how bad someone is going to get their ass kicked. I prefer the term “Rodney King” as in “I spilled my beer on this group of guys so they Rodney Kinged me.” or “Ho check” as in “My girlfriend told me I couldn’t go out with the guys so I gave her a ho check.” “Paint the ground red is good”, and so is “take [one] out back”. I hope no one finds these too offensive, if so I am sorry. It is in the interest of humor that I present these examples, and not to offend any certain group.

A version I had heard years ago in school is a lot more unpleasant. According to this story, those afflicted with Down’s Syndrome often have red hair. Stepchildren are always a threat to the offspring of the current relationship (or even a different, earlier relationship), and are traditionally depicted as put upon. Cinderella was her evil stepmother’s stepdaughter, right? Now, take someone as caring and loving as Cindy’s evil stepsisters and stepmother, and give them someone with Down’s. Imagine the poor kid would be beat - like a red headed step child.

jwg - your information is incorrect. Downe’s syndrome children always have black hair, as well as vaguely almond-shaped eye similar to asians - thus they were originally called Mongoloids. They are also incredibally loving and positive people, which is why I call them “God’s children”

My WAG - Celts, especially the Irish tend to be red-headed - and good with horses. There were a lot of Irish grooms in England in 18th and 19th century. If a well-off young miss had an indiscreet liaison with her groom, she would end up with a bastard child, and probably a old man for a husband who would tolerate her indiscretion. Unfortunately, the child would probably receive the brunt of the husbands disapproval.

I said it was a WAG!

I posted last time this question came up, and here’s the same answer:

I said that phrase in front of my dad once, and I thought he was going to fall off his chair in shock.

Red-headed stepchild, he said, was considered a racist phrase when he grew up (30s), because red hair and freckles is a trait that shows up extremely well in chidlren of mixed Anglo and African blood.

Not only would a black man be reminded that this step-child wasn’t his own, but that the child was fathered by a white man - and presumably, there’s the chance that the woman was not a willing participant in conception.

That’s what he said, anyways, and it made sense to me.

Will work for sig line.