Beautiful Ambiguity

© Paramount Television

One of the most charming things about French family life is the way one expresses both the “step” and “in-law” relationships. In English, we use the prefix “step” to denote that a relationship has been created by the marriage or coupling of a new, non-biologically-related person with one’s parent. For example, your stepfather is the man who marries or co-habits with your mother after the end of her relationship with your father. Stepbrothers and stepsisters are pre-existing children that come into the family because of this new couple. Think of The Brady Bunch: Mike was Marcia, Jan, and Cindy’s stepfather; Carol was Greg, Peter, and Bobby’s stepmother; the girls were the boys’ stepsisters; and the boys were the girls’ stepbrothers. Conceivably, one could extend the prefix to other family members, as well. We use the suffix “-in-law,” however, to describe the relatives of one’s spouse. For example, your father-in-law is the father of your husband, and your sister-in-law is his sister. Again, one could use the suffix for extended family members as well.

Fairly clear and straightforward, right?

For an anglophone, though, the French way of describing these relationships can seem quite confusing. They use the prefixes “beau” and “belle” (according to gender) to describe all of the relationships. A “beau-père” can be a stepfather or a father-in-law. A “belle-sœur” can be a stepsister or a sister-in-law. When I first learned about the ambiguity of these words, I found the lack of precision peculiar. “The ‘stepfather’ relationship is simply not the same as the ‘father-in-law’ relationship,” I thought. “How can you use the same word to describe two completely different relationships like that?”

© NBC Universal
© The Walt Disney Company

What I found even more intriguing, however, was the use of the adjectives “beau” (meaning “handsome”) and “belle” (meaning “beautiful”) to describe the relationships we describe with “step” and “in-law.” Our prefix “step” comes from the Old English root “ástíeped” (meaning “bereaved”), denoting a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent. Pretty somber. Our suffix “in-law” denotes a connection to a spouse’s family in the eyes of the law resulting from the marriage. Pretty cold and official. That the French use “handsome” and “beautiful” instead was truly surprising and quite enchanting, especially given that these family members are so often depicted in our myths, fairy tales, and even modern popular culture in a less than warm light. I’ve searched for an explanation for why the French use such an endearing formula for describing the step and in-law relationships, but I’ve yet to find one that makes much sense. If you’ve got insights, please share.

In any case, now that I have a French family that is chock full of beaux-pères, belles-mères, beaux-frères, and belles-sœurs, I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful ambiguity of what I call them. Whether he’s my husband‘s father or his stepfather … whether she’s my husband’s mother or his stepmother … whether he’s my husband’s brother or his sister’s husband … whether she’s my husband’s sister or his brother’s fiancée … they are all the “others” that enrich my family. It’s not the precision of the relationship that matters—it’s the beauty of it.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

3 thoughts on “Beautiful Ambiguity

  1. When I came to France, one of the American TV shows that was played regularly was the Suzanne Somers/Patrick Duffy sitcom, “Step by Step”. It was dubbed into French, of course, and retitled “Ma Belle Famille”. I thought it quite cleverly captured the essence of the original title, even if it wasn’t one of my favorite programs. I agree with you that the French designations are most charming.

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