The central motif of Cinderella is a story of astonishing antiquity: the image of the missing slipper stretches back as far as Ancient Greece, but a search of the internet comes up with a number of possible origins. The modern version of Cinderella has its roots in Lo cunto de li cunti, the Story of Stories, published in 1634 by Neapolitan Giambattista Basile. His transcription of the story of La Cenerentola, apparently derived from a Neapolitan folk tale, includes the wicked step mother, magical transformations and the missing slipper. It was this collection which inspired both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm to write their more widely-known versions of the story.
The version which Disney later adapted is from the Grimms’ collection of folk tales for children, under the title Aschenputtel. This name comes from a combination of asche, ash, and a suggestion of the word for pot. By 1899, when Johann Strauss II wrote, or rather began, a ballet based on the story, the name of the eponymous heroine had changed to Aschenbrödel, from a typically Germanic fusion of asche and brodeln, to bubble, brew. We could speculate, tentatively, that this development was a result of the fact that ‘puttel’ came to suggest a cooking pot (in which things are brewed and boiled) rather than what was probably the original intention, a receptacle into which a cleaning-girl like Aschenputtel would sweep the ashes from the grate.
In any case, the ‘ash’ component is consistent, and it was this part that formed the basis of the translations into other European languages. It was rendered into Dutch as Assepoester, and from there as Askungen and Askepott (meaning ‘pot of ashes’, as in the original German version) in Sweden and Norway respectively. In French, La Cenerentola is known as Cendrillon, evoking cendre, ash, and her story as La Petite Pantoufle de Verre. In Portuguese she is Cinderela, and her story that of A Gata Borralheira, which means, rather inexplicably, the cat who likes to be in the sun.
In Spanish she is known as La Cenicienta, which has come to mean both a person who is unjustly looked down on and, simply, a maid. The name clearly suggests ‘ash’ (ceniza) but, according to the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, its origin is the story by Perrault. Curiously, luz de cenicienta refers to the light, reflected from the earth, which illuminates the dark part of the moon before and after the new moon.