Case 1: The wife of a child's father, but not the child's mother (i.e. second >marriage, or bastard child)

Case 2: The mother of one's spouse

Based on what I've found online, "mother-in-law" is used for the second case. What of the first?


2 Answers 2


In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens writes:

“The fact is, I am not their father, Mr Squeers. I’m only their father-in->law” ... “You see, I have married the mother.”

So parent-in-law has been used for a non-parent who is married to a child's parent.

But step-parent has replaced this usage in current English.

  • 5
    This is technically correct, but the phrase "more common" is far too weak. "Step-parent" is universally used in modern English for the spouse of a parent who is not also the child's parent. "Parent-in-law" is exclusively reserved for the parent of a spouse in modern usage. I can't upvote this unless you strengthen it. Nov 4, 2015 at 21:25
  • @ChrisSunami You are right.
    – jejorda2
    Nov 4, 2015 at 21:31

The OED takes an interesting position on this. It accepts that the terms mother-in-law and father-in-law apply to the parents of a person's spouse. Of that there is no doubt. However historically both terms have applied to what we now call stepfather or stepmother.

In the case of father-in-law the OED provides examples dating between 1552 and 1876 including by such writers as Charles Dickens and George Eliot. However the OED states clearly that it is now commonly regarded as a misuse of the term.

But in the case of mother-in-law the sense meaning stepmother has far more recent examples, and the OED claims it as a regionalism. It doesn't however state in which regions it might be found. Though the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century examples range from Devonshire, North Yorkshire, Jamaica, and Northern Ireland.

See below OED entries for the step-parent sense of father-in-law and mother-in-law.

2. = stepfather n. Now commonly regarded as a misuse.

1552 R. Huloet Abcedarium Anglico Latinum Father in lawe, vitricus.

1597 Shakespeare Richard III v. v. 34 All comfort that the darke night can afford, Be to thy person noble father in law.

1598 R. Grenewey tr. Tacitus Annales iii. vi. 72 A..band of alliance..betwixt the father in lawe, and his wiues children.

1748 S. Richardson Clarissa IV. xxiii. 122 Nancy could not bear a father-in-law.

1773 O. Goldsmith She stoops to Conquer i. 12 Father-in-law has been calling me whelp, and hound.

1839 Dickens Nicholas Nickleby iv. 27, I am not their father, Mr. Squeers. I'm only their father-in-law.

1876 ‘G. Eliot’ Daniel Deronda IV. vii. lvi. 150, I did not like my father-in-law to come home.

2. = stepmother n. 1a. Now regional.

1516 St. Bridget (Pynson) in J. H. Blunt Mirror our Lady (1873) p. xlviii, Hir moder in lawe.

1642 T. Fuller Holy State i. x. 26 If she becomes a mother in law, there is no difference betwixt her carriage to her own and her second husbands children.

1733 H. Fielding Miser iv. xiv. 65, I know the Word, Mother-in-law, has a terrible Sound, but perhaps I may make a better than you imagine.

1751 Narr. Life J. Daniel i. 4 My father being..constantly abroad till ten o'clock, my new mother-in-law spent most part of his absence with me.

1787 J. Beattie Scoticisms 55 Mother-in-law..in Scot. and in Eng. too..is often used improperly for step-mother.

1819 Shelley Cenci Pref. p. vii, This daughter..at length plotted with her mother-in-law and brother to murder their common tyrant.

1847 Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848) xiv. 119 Miss Sharp will be your mother-in-law..that's what will happen.

1866 N. & Q. 24 Mar. 247/1 Mother-in-law,..this name is very generally given to step-mothers in the..West Riding of Yorkshire.

1866 N. & Q. 21 Apr. 336/1 It is a very usual thing for the lower orders in Devonshire to call a step-mother a mother-in-law.

1903 J. Wright Eng. Dial. Dict. IV. 172/2 [W. Yorkshire]_Mother-in-law, a step-mother... Very common.

1956 in F. G. Cassidy & R. B. Le Page Dict. Jamaican Eng. (1980) 306/1 /mi maadanlaa, mi madarinlaa/, father's wife who is not her mother.

1996 C. I. Macafee Conc. Ulster Dict. 228/2 Mother-in-law, a step-mother.

  • Thank you for the detailed answer! I actually merely forgot the terms 'stepfather' and 'stepmother', but I've learned something new today. Nov 7, 2015 at 4:16

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