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Where did the phrase 'beat you like a red-headed stepchild' come from and what does it mean?

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Beating a Red-Headed Step-Child
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  • "Beating you like a red-headed stepchild" refers to a terrible beating. It is a variation of "beating you like a rented mule."
  • Etymology (the origin of words and phrases) is notoriously hard to pin down. The etymology of this one obviously has something to do with child abuse. Some clues to the origin of its specifics:
  1. A stepchild is often presumed to be less favored than biological children. If a parent was abusive, a stepchild might get the worst of it. (Similarly, a rented mule would be less valuable than one you own.)
  2. A child having red hair might be an indication that they have a different father, thereby reinforcing that they are a stepchild.
  3. Red hair is often associated with a fiery personality. (Similarly, a mule is considered an especially stubborn animal.)


It could be linked to the Viking invasions experienced in Britain and Ireland in the 11th century. The Vikings came down from their area, pillaged and raped and left a few red-headed children. Being so obviously different from the rest of the children in the area, they were subject to discrimination by parents knowing their origin was from an invading source. I can imagine that these children would have suffered the wrath of the local population who could obviously identify them as products of the Vikings violent influence on their culture. They were an easy target to vent the frustration of this phenomenon of force.

  • I believe that it can definitely be attributed to the Viking era, a European experience of not fitting in.
  • 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. In the poorer classes one might beat a stepchild more than their own because they care less for them than their own child. The redheaded part may be a reference to the hotheadedness that redheads are supposed to be prone to, which would incite the beating all the more. It is probably anonymous, coming from less educated people who use and make up their own slang frequently.
  • It may have arisen from the feudal/medieval practice known as jus primae noctis. This was an ancient privilege of the lord of the manor to share the wedding bed with his peasants' brides. This right was depicted in the film Braveheart. The English declare they will "breed out" the Scots by introducing the ancient English custom, giving noblemen the right to sleep with the bride on the night of a tenant's marriage. Jus primae noctis was also said to have been practiced in Ireland where it passed with title to the land as part of the land rights. A first-born child might have been assumed to be the offspring of the landlord, would be a de facto stepchild, and may have been treated differently from other offspring.
  • I believe everyone is over thinking the question just a tad bit. The phrase beat you like a red headed stepchild came from the musical and show Annie. It was all about her getting beat with the brush by her step-mom. Let's try to keep it real everyone; and not try to show off intelligence.
  • The origin of the phrase "red haired step child" dates to the 1830's & 40's when Irish emigrants began arriving in America. The newly arrived Irish were somewhere below free blacks on the social scale at the time, and lived in segregated communities. Then, like now, young men were having sexual relations with young women before marriage. Sometimes the men were Irish and the girls were not. This resulted in many out of wedlock children with that red Irish hair. When these young women did finally marry, usually to a young man not of Irish descent, the new husband was not particularly patient or sympathetic to the red haired step child and treated them harshly. The phrase is derogatory although many do not know its origin, it is still considered an insult to knowledgeable people of Irish descent, and should be avoided in polite conversation.
  • My answer is to put in bold print the actual answer given amongst all the theories. It refers to someone having an unloved step-child who was clearly of Irish origin. So great was prejudice against the Irish that signs in front of restaurants, bars or hotels used to say, "No dogs or Irish".
  • It is a wholly nasty term born in the American south, by slave owners, that speaks to abusive hatred aimed at Red Headed Male children. The English aren't the only ones who display a clear prejudice to "Gingers", in fact as a "Ginger" Male, I can tell you that I can spot a decent human being from an awful excuse for a human being, just based on the way they treat me, Having grown up in New York, far from England, almost 150 years and several hundred Miles removed from the despicable Old south. Sadly it will be the last prejudice that anyone ever addresses.
  • Stepchildren were often mistreated, as opposed to the way biological children were treated. The red-headed stepchild is kind of like saying, "look at the milk man". In other words, a child in the family who may not belong to the Dad. In other words, a child with two strikes against him/her.
  • I think all the explanations above are written by people trying to avoid the unpleasant and far more basic meaning:
    A step child would get beaten more than a biological child. As redheads are traditionally disliked and picked on, a redheaded stepchild would get an even worse beating! Nasty, simple, basic.
  • One aspect of this idiom is the fact that some children are evidence of adultery or cuckoldry simply because of genetic markers that are commonly understood. An awful variation of this is the "ni**er in the woodpile" phrase, meaning that a child was the product of bi-racial parents, though the white mother is married to a white husband. The red-hair trait is recessive, so it is uncommon for a couple with darker hair to produce a red-haired child, just as it is unlikely for a light, European couple to produce a dark, African-featured child. The appearance of a genetically anomalous child to a genetically similar couple leads to doubts about the child's true parentage, and is a public shame to the husband.
    The idea of a child who seems to be a product of adultery would be a constant insult or shame to the husband in question, which could engender inappropriate anger in place of reasonable discipline. Therefore one would "beat his redheaded stepchild" more violently than other children.
    The term "Stepchild" may come from the husband knowing that the child is not his, a defacto "Stepchild", or it may come from the fact that a child is an actual stepchild, from a father from a different genetic background. Where a genetically similar child might be taken as a son, a genetically dissimilar one is a shame to the husband.
Thanks for the feedback!

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