The Beautiful In-Laws

How’s your beautiful mother?

A common error for French speakers, and one I think I heard fairly recently. It’s not just a mistake in that it’s generally inappropriate, but linguistically too. If a French speaker ever asks you a question like this, or asks about your beautiful daughter/sister, or handsome father/brother/son, there’s a good chance they’re asking about your in-laws.

You see, French uses terms such as belle-mère and beau-père to refer to in-laws, and belle and beau, when referring to a person, normally translate into English as beautiful and handsome.

Which is curiously different from the English term in-law. It’s always struck me as a strangely cold, legalistic term. It sounds so grudging, like you’re only accepting this person into your life because of the law, not because you want it. Beau and belle obviously sound more pleasant, and were in fact originally used in medieval French as a term of endearment, to indicate the closeness between one and their in-laws.

In-law, on the other hand, came about around the 14th century. In a basic sense it was used to indicate that a person had a similar relationship to someone as a mother, brother etc. but only in the eyes of the law. It also more specifically referred to Canon Law (the law of a Christian church), and was meant ot identify the legal limits within which marriage was allowed or not. An in-law was someone recognised as part of your family according to Canon Law, and therefore someone you were forbidden to marry. Just in case you were wondering about your mother-in-law.

All this is probably why we’re so fond of mother-in-law jokes in English. Of course the position lends itself to old-fashioned stereotypical jokes, and there are belle-mère jokes too, and equivalents in other languages. There do seem to be more in English though, and I think that’s a lot to do with the term in-law, and the sense of reluctant attachment associated with it. Perhaps the next time you feel like making a mother-in-law joke, think of the term belle-mère instead, and it may make you think twice.

4 thoughts on “The Beautiful In-Laws

  1. My Polish-speaking friend pronounces “in-law” as “in-lav” which I always think sounds really sweet – “This is my mother-in-love”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In GRR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, he uses the terms ‘good-father’ etc. I can’t remember if this is used in the Game of Thrones tv series.
    In Australian English, at least, the parents-in-law in particular are sometimes called the ‘out-laws’. Meanwhile, there is no term in any variety of English, as far as I know, to refer to the parents of your son- or daughter-in-law (or the parents-in-law of your daughter or son).

    Liked by 1 person

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