Think back for a moment to the last time you heard the expression “kith and kin.” While most native English speakers have probably heard or read this expression at some time, it is probably not a part of their everyday vocabulary. The phrase “kith and kin,” meaning “native land and people,” has its first recorded appearance in English in 1377 in Piers Plowman.
Piers Plowman is an allegorical narrative poem written by William Langland. It was written in what is today called Middle English and is considered by many literary critics to be one of the greatest works of Middle English literature. The poem, written from the perspective of medieval Catholicism, is about the intense quest for the true Christian life.
Originally, kith and kin referred to blood relatives or members of one’s own nation: kith are the people one knows and kin are those to whom one is related.
“Kith” is today considered to be obsolete. With regard to etymology, it comes from the Old English noun “cyth” which means “knowledge; known, familiar country; acquaintances, friends.” “Cyth” comes from the proto-Germanic noun “*kunthith” which is a derivative of “*kunthaz” meaning “known” which is the past participle of the verb “*kunnan” meaning “to know, know how.”
In Middle English, “kith” was used as a general synonym for knowledge. It also implied knowledge of acceptable behavior or it could be used to denote the region or place with which one was familiar.
On another note, “*kunnan” became the verb “cunnan” in Old English. The first person singular of “cunnan” serves today in Modern English as “can.” In addition, the verbal noun and adjective of “cunnan” became the English “cunning” which first appeared in the fourteenth century.
The proto-Germanic “*kunthaz” became the Old English adjective “cūth” meaning “known, familiar.” While “cūth” became obsolete in English by 1600, its negative form, “uncouth,” has survived. In 1896, the word “couth” was created by Max Beerbohm as a jocular back-formation.
As an anthropologist, “kin” and its related concept “kinship,” are a standard part of my working professional vocabulary and are used to describe an important aspect of social organization. On the other hand, for most other people—I’m tempted to say for “normal people”—the primary use of “kin” can be found in the expression “next of kin.”
“Kin” comes from the Old English “cynn” meaning “family; race; kind; rank; nature; gender; sex.” “Cynn” comes from the proto-Germanic “*kunjam” meaning “family” which became the Old Frisian “kenn,” the Old Saxon “kunni,” and the Old Norse “kyn.” Going deeper into the etymology, it seems to be related to the Proto-Indo-European “*gen(e)-” meaning “to produce.”
Note: the * indicates that the Indo-European or prehistoric word has been reconstructed by historical linguists.