Like a red-headed stepchild…

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Yesterday at Trader Joe’s I got into a conversation with the checker, who made some comment about something being like a red-headed step-child. I told him that I actually have a red-headed step-child. That got us both wondering what the origin of the phrase is. I find the origins of words and idioms pretty interesting, so the first place I turned to was the Online Etymology Dictionary. That didn’t help me much in this case.

To me, the phrase red-headed stepchild means someone or something that is odd, out-of-place, or illegitimate. I’d never really heard the phrase beaten like a red-headed stepchild before doing an internet search.

Apparently, this is a phrase of no clear origin. Some ideas on beaten like a red-headed stepchild:

It is a slang insult born of violence that has become a catch phrase. It means “to beat you extremely”, assuming that in anger or frustration you would beat a redheaded stepchild more than any other child because she/he is less desirable – both for being a stepchild and for being redheaded.

This is pretty much within earlier traditional expressions of contempt for redheads as unreliable, untrustworthy and ill-tempered.

I don’t have any reference for this and in some ways it doesn’t even make sense but I always thought that the “redheaded” part was to suggest that the child was possibly not the “father’s”; that is that the mother had cuckolded the father and being redheaded suggested that someone else was the father.  It doesn’t make sense because a step-child *of course* has a different father.  But folk slang frequently doesn’t make sense, almost as often as folk etymologies like this one.

Here I found some information I’d never heard before about the genetics and prevalence of red hair.

  • Red hair is the rarest natural hair color in humans.
  • Approximately 1% to 2% of the human population has red hair. It occurs more frequently (between 2% and 6% of the population) in northern and western Europeans, and their descendants, and at lower frequencies throughout other parts of the world. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. It is associated with fair skin color, lighter eye colors (gray, blue, green, and hazel), freckles, and sensitivity to ultraviolet ligh.t
  • In the United States, it is estimated that 2-6% of the population has red hair.
  • Redheads constitute approximately 4 per cent of the European population.[8] Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads; 13 per cent of the population has red hair and approximately 40 per cent carries the recessive redhead gene.[9] Ireland has the second highest percentage; as many as 10 per cent of the Irish population has red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair.[10] It is thought that up to 46 percent of the Irish population carries the recessive redhead gene.
  • The genetics of red hair, discovered in 1997, appear to be associated with the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R), which is found on chromosome 16. … Even if both parents do not have red hair themselves, both can be carriers for the gene and have a redheaded child.

And, apparently, red hair with brown eyes, like my step-daughter, is quite uncommon. Her eyes are closest to brown, but really almost reddish and very much match her hair. Her siblings, one of which is her twin, have blondish hair and green or blue eyes. Neither parent has red hair.

So there you have it. Some ideas, no clear path back to the origins of the phrase red-headed stepchild.

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