Stories behind Words: kith and kin

Posted by on October 16, 2013

stories behind words kith and kinIf you have read Stan’s recent post Fossil words of yore, you will already know that kith in the expression kith and kin is one of these fossil words; that is, it has little or no life of its own but exists today only in that expression.

It was not always so, though it is a long time since any of the meanings of kith (a word of Germanic origin meaning ‘known’) given in the OED have been used independently. Three of the senses are completely obsolete, while the fourth is used only in the set phrase. So if your kin are all the people in your family, who or what are your kith? OED says:

The persons who are known or familiar, taken collectively; one’s friends, fellow-countrymen, or neighbours; acquaintance; in later use sometimes confused with kin: see 5. Obs. or arch. exc. as in 5.

Over 90% of the citations in a sample of 100 corpus lines contain the fixed expression, along with a few proper names and oddities. And although kith and kin is also what is generally known as an irreversible binomial, meaning that the nouns always occur in the same order, a small number of citations do nevertheless reverse the order. A few citations also separate kith from its usually inseparable partner (though not by much), showing that the word’s independent meaning still lingers:

Remember you have kith, if not kin, in these parts.
I had neither kith nor kin in England.
Because they are kith and not kin they will not receive anything from her estate.

Browse the archive of Stories behind Words and get in touch if you’d like to suggest a word/phrase for the series. We’d love to hear from you!

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Comments (4)
  • […] Macmillan Dictionary blog, Liz Potter revealed the stories behind kith and kin; Jonathan Marks explored the roots (and routes) of curr- and curs-; and Stan Carey got with […]

    Posted by Language Blog Roundup: Oscar Hijuelos, Alice Munro, an open letter | Wordnik on 18th October, 2013
  • Part of urban modern society has lost sight of the kind of society where the basic premise is that everyone in that society is related, and connected to a group. To me living in The Orkney Islands Kith and Kin makes sense. Many people are related here by blood and marriage.
    Kin are your known blood relatives; Kith are your friends, neighbours, school friends, the people who know you ,who turn up at your wedding, at your funeral; they may even be distantly related, they are your tribal group, When people lived in a defined territory, eg on an island, or a glen, they had lines of connection with each other; direct blood line, indirect, or distant relation. People lived in essentially tribal groups. Scottish clans used to be like this. Local people here often spend some time, on encountering strangers, in trying to place people within either of the two groups, feeding them into the collective local computer of who is who. Immigrants suffer greatly when they find themselves without their supporting cloaks of Kith and Kin

    Posted by Alastair Macleod on 19th December, 2013
  • Thanks for that lovely and interesting comment, Alastair. I remember reading many years ago a book called Family and Kinship in East London which traced the kinds of relationships you describe, but in an urban setting. The communities analysed in the study were already being dispersed when it was written.

    Posted by Liz on 19th December, 2013
  • “I, Claudius”, the tv series from some decades back, would show Claudius
    &c formally announced upon entering as “the Emperor Claudius, his family and friends”, which sounded like a translation of kith and kin, except kin and kith in Claudius’s case.

    Posted by Roger on 21st December, 2013
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