High-stepping Stepchildren

By Maeve Maddox

English has several idioms that employ the words step and stepping.

As a verb, step means to lift the foot and set it down again on the ground in a new position.

As a noun, step is the act of stepping.

baby steps and giant steps
A “baby step” is a step that covers a very narrow distance:

Still, a year after Mr. Shumlin’s call to arms, progress can be measured only in baby steps.

A “giant step” is one that covers a wide distance, either forward or backward:

One of those amendments would address Citizens United which, [Stevens] wrote, was “a giant step in the wrong direction.”

goose-stepping
To goose step is to march in such a way that the legs swing sharply from the hips, and the knees are locked. Soldiers marching in this way resemble mechanical toys. Because this type of marching was a feature of Nazi military display, it is associated with fascist power.

Goose-stepping in unison may have been used by the Nazis to help brainwash people into following their cause, a new study suggests.

India and Pakistan’s aggressive border closing ceremony has been stopped after soldiers complained the high goose-stepping was wrecking their knee joints and causing foot injuries.

Confess that guns hold absolutely no interest or appeal for you, and you’re a leftist, a radical who won’t be happy until the jackbooted thugs of The New World Order are goose-stepping down Main Street, trampling Our Sacred Freedoms.

“Goose-stepping” always has a negative connotation, but another idiom, “high-stepping,” can be positive or negative.

Literally, “high-stepping” describes the act of lifting the legs high while walking. Because horse fanciers admired the gait of a high-stepping horse, a fashionable or attractive person came to be known as “a high-stepper.”

Sometimes the term is used in a negative sense to refer to someone who lives extravagantly, or who aspires to a higher social status:

Dona had come to town as a schoolteacher.  She was pretty, vivacious, and in the parlance of the time, a “high-stepper.”

Leo Donnelly, always at his peak in silk-lined, low-comedy, high-stepping crook roles, is here at his best.

The following sentence spoken by an NPR regular seems to confuse high-stepping and goose-stepping:

Nazi soldiers’ high stepping casts a fog over the event.

Note: The word fog is also jarring; perhaps the announcer was reaching for pall.

Two more idioms that have literal and figurative meanings are “to sidestep” and “to step up to the plate.”

The literal meaning of sidestep is to step aside, as if to avoid some physical obstacle:

Climbing from the carriage, she held her bag against her chest and tried to sidestep a puddle the size of a small lake.

Figuratively, “to sidestep” is to avoid involvement or responsibility:

Jefferson Township Sewer Authority hopes to sidestep big expense with grant money.

“Step up to the plate” comes from the game of baseball.

Note: Home plate is a 5-sided rubber slab at one corner of a baseball diamond at which a batter stands when batting and which must be touched by a base runner in order to score.

When it’s a player’s turn to bat, he “steps up to the plate.” Figuratively, the expression means to come forward and accept responsibility for something that must be done:

Community members stepped up to the plate and raised more than $2,700 for the Harmon Killebrew Miracle Field at a recent fundraiser.

Unrelated to the verb step in the sense of moving the feet is the affix step- as in stepchild.

This step derives from an ancient Germanic word element that was placed before the word for a family member “to form designations for the degrees of affinity resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent.” For example, a widow who married a widower would become the stepmother of the widower’s children. They in turn would be her stepchildren.

Stepmothers in all the fairy tales I’ve read are notorious for their ill treatment of their stepchildren. Consider, for example, the stories of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel.

Because of the stereotype of the wicked stepmother, the word stepchild has acquired the figurative meaning of “someone or something that is neglected, undervalued, or abused.” Here are some examples:

“It’s a sad fact that P.E. is education’s ugly stepchild,” said Goldstein.

Rarely is open space seen as more than an afterthought. It truly is a stepchild of planning when it should be a catalyst and spatial organizer for development. 

A fairly recent embellishment of stepchild in the sense of an object of abuse and neglect is the expression “redheaded stepchild.” The earliest evidence of the phrase in the Ngram Viewer is dated 1923. An article at World Wide Words references an example from 1910.

Like stepmothers, redheaded people do not fare well in folklore. If a stepchild is undervalued, then a redheaded stepchild is the object of special negative attention:

We then learned that Waukegan is apparently the North Shore’s red headed stepchild. 

The South is the red-headed stepchild in the American story. 

Note: The adjective is hyphenated in the OED, but spelled as one word in Merriam-Webster.

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