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I've been reading Middlemarch, and came across a usage of father-in-law which, from context, must mean step-father. Later in the same novel, the phrase father-in-law was used as we would use it today. So at the time, it must have had both meanings.

When did step-father replace one meaning of father-in-law?

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In which chapters? –  Barrie England Oct 2 '11 at 19:36
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Meanwhile, I see the OED has this citation from 1538: 'Vitricus, a father in lawe or steppefather.' –  Barrie England Oct 2 '11 at 19:38
    
@BarrieEngland. I forger which chapter. I made a note of it as a question to ask later on the receipt I was using as a bookmark. I forgot to note down the page number or chapter. (The context was that Raffles was Rigg's stepfather.) –  TRiG Oct 2 '11 at 19:51
    
@Barrie if you go to google books its on page 487 (or search for father--in-law) books.google.ie/books/… –  cindi Oct 3 '11 at 17:31
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2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The step- prefix is from (13th-century) Old English steop-, referring to bereavement: steopcild was not stepchild as we know it today, but rather orphan before we acquired that word from Latin via Old French. A step-parent used to be the adopter of an orphan.

In-law is from the same time period and refers to Canon Law, which established relationships (and thus allowable marriages, etc.) on the basis of consanguinity and adoption. The two terms could presumably have been used interchangeably until step- lost its connotation of orphanage, which happened as late as the 20th century.

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The OED has a seventeenth century citation from one of Fletcher and Massinger’s plays illustrating the use of step-father to mean father-in-law, with the suggestion that it might have been a conscious misuse.

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