Stories behind Words: kith and kinPosted by Liz Potter on October 16, 2013
If 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!
[…] 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 […]