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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.

Originally posted to Cranky Grammarians on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 09:51 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Genealogy and Family History Community.

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Comment Preferences

  •  "for “normal people.” (12+ / 0-)

    That made me smile, thank you.
    One of my favorite English etymological relationships is that between the words crocodile and sugar.
    Talk about unexpected kith & kin...

    "I'm an atheist, thank god." - Dave Allen

    by yojimbo on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:02:31 AM PST

  •  You mean it's not (17+ / 0-)

    kithin' kin? ;)

    Being the single intellectual in a village of 1,100 souls ain't much fun, especially when 1,099 of those don't think you're all that smart.--Lucy Marsden

    by Miniaussiefan on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:04:12 AM PST

  •  question (15+ / 0-)

    is there a link from “*kunnan”  to "kenning"?

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:10:09 AM PST

    •  I've wondered if there is also some relationship (14+ / 0-)

      with the German verb "kennen" (to know).  

      As always, Ojibwa's etymology diaries get my brain-gears crunching and whirling.  

      "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle stand like a rock." Attributed to T. Jefferson

      by koosah on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:17:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Norwegian verb "kjenner" (7+ / 0-)

        As in German, means "to know". I was wondering if this is related to the Old Norse word "kyn" mentioned in the diary.

        •  Probably (7+ / 0-)

          A lot of old English words are directly related to Anglo-Saxon languages which transition into Viking languages as each invaded and settled in England (a name derived from "Angle Land" - before that the island nation was called Britain, and even earlier names were Sarum and Albion).  Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are mutually intelligible today, whereas the earlier versions of their language, Icelandic and Faroese, are not necessarily able to be understood by people of the three Scandinavian countries.

          I studied Norwegian for two years in the early '80s (forgot much of it because there was no one with whom I could speak the language).  Modern Norwegian has two different dialects that each student learns in school, as well as being taught English as a second language from grade school through high school and college.  I knew if I could understand one of the Scandinavian languages the other two would be intelligible when it came to doing genealogy research in all three countries (I have ancestors from all three, plus four other countries; lots of English lineages starting with the Mayflower forward).

          Two and a half decades later, I'd just become acquainted online with fifth cousins in Norway as a result of one of my first cousins finding them via a blind google search.  Transcribed records were online, and a couple of years later they put microfilm images online (all this is free on one web site, BTW, thanks to the taxpayers in Norway; ditto Denmark, but two or three web sites; Sweden has two or three fee-based web sites).  That's when I discovered that the language used in Norwegian records is Dano-Norsk and the language is tied up with Norwegian history, which tied in nicely with the history of the language as told to us by the Norwegian teacher.

          The plagues swept Scandinavia (and the rest of Europe) ca 1347-49, killed off the 'royalty' of Norway.  Norway came under Danish rule, but functioned as an independent nation.  During the Napoleonic wars Denmark lost land; Norway had its first "modern" constitution signed into law on 17 May 1814, but ceded itself to Swedish rule  (Syttende Mai, aka Constitution Day, is still celebrated every year - the closest approximation is to our July 4, but the Norwegians' accent is on children's parades and there is an absence of anything military in these parades).  By the late 19th century, the intelligentsia of Norway were complaining of the language influences on Norwegian and wanted to Norwegianize Norwegian, and others wanted total autonomy even though they had always functioned as an independent country.  In 1905 Norway became an independent country again, but because of the relationship with Denmark and customs and language being closer, they took the second son of the Danish royal house to become their king and his descendants are on the throne today.  They didn't publish their first dictionary in Norwegian until ca 1917.
          Spelling Reform and Politics: the Case of Norwegian

          Language Tree.

          In any case, the Rus (origin of the word Russia) were the Vikings who went south to Constantinople and points south via the river-ways and portages in Europe; they were primarily from what is modern-day Sweden and Denmark.  (Among archaeological finds in Sweden was a tiny statue of a Buddha.)  The Vikings who invaded Britain/England and Normandy, France and founded many coastal cities in Ireland, and settled Iceland and the Faroe Islands were primarily from Norway and Denmark.  Wherever they went, there are words and names left behind to influence languages in other areas.

          Scandinavian languages left a huge impact on locations, particularly in England, Ireland, and Normandy, as well as local dialects.  All cities ending in "by" have a Norse influence.  By is one of the few words that never lost it's traditional spelling and meaning; it has always meant "town," in spite of modern documentaries indicating it means "farm" - a gaard/gård is a farm.  I suppose in ancient times a gaard-gård could have been an original trading post or meeting place and a by/town grew up around it....  Vik/Vig still means a bay or inlet, and from it comes the word Viking.  V/W are used interchangeably, and g/k are also used interchangeably through the centuries (as are i/j/y), and vig/wig/vik/wik are often prefixes or suffixes in a huge number of Norwegian location names, and sometimes in people's names.

          :-) Errrrrrrm... yes.  Between being fascinated with language and having to know the various alternate spellings in centuries where there were no standardized spellings and names were often spelled at the whim of the writer of old documents (and kinds of spelling were influenced by the educational background of the writer, so Latin and Germanic spellings are found among the records, depending on where the writer was educated), etymology has become an interest of mine, by necessity as much as inclination.

          I'm sick of attempts to steer this nation from principles evolved in The Age of Reason to hallucinations derived from illiterate herdsmen. ~ Crashing Vor

          by NonnyO on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 01:39:24 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Nonny, would you mind clarifying the relation (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            NonnyO, koosah, Ahianne, Ojibwa

            of "once removed"? Does it relate to having one grandparent in common--that is, the relationship between the children of half-siblings? If not, how is that relationship described?
            Thanks so much!

            This comment is a natural product. The slight variations in spelling and grammar enhance its individual character and beauty and in no way are to be considered flaws or defects.

            by blue muon on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 01:58:30 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Two different concepts (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              NonnyO, Ahianne, Ojibwa

              The simplest case of "removed" is "first cousin once removed".  This refers to the child (one generation "removed") of a first cousin.  The relationship holds in both directions, so that it also refers to the cousin of that child's parent.

              The "half" relation, such as "half-cousin" means that a pair of "siblings" somewhere in the relationship had just one parent in common, instead of two.

              The Wikipedia article on Cousin has helpful diagrams about the "removed" relationships.  It also describes "half" and "double" relationships, which you just mentioned.

            •  :-) After first cousin, once removed... (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              yojimbo, koosah, Ahianne, Ojibwa

              ... I scramble for charts to find out what the description is.  Here is a genealogy article describing some of the relationships.

              First cousins of parents are "first cousin once removed" to you.  In uneven generational descendancy, then once, twice, three..., etc., times removed comes into play.

              Depending on how you understand which kind of genealogy relationship charts, here are a whole bunch of styles to choose from.

              This came up in my family because some of my mother's first cousins were born late enough that they were only a two to five years older than me so we would chum around together at family reunions, along with those who were first cousins to me (offspring of my mother's siblings).  The couple who were my gr-grandparents were her grandparents..., ergo, a one generation difference made us "first cousins once removed."

              Half siblings share biological descendancy from one common parent if one had a previous relationship that produced children.

              Step siblings are not biologically related.  His children by another woman and her children by another man are step siblings to each other.  If that same couple has more children together, those children will be half siblings to the step siblings.

              Riiiiiiiiiiiight.  Clear as mud.  If you have your pedigree chart on Ancestry, there's a button to click that will figure out the relationship between two people.

              One of my ancestresses (Desire Doty, daughter of Edward Doty of the Mayflower and his wife, Faith Clark) was married three times and had children by all three husbands (she outlived them!).  Desire was the common parent for all eleven children she produced by three different men (the last one had children by a previous wife), so there were a lot of siblings and half-siblings.  One of her daughters from her first marriage married the daughter of the third husband from his first marriage.  Additionally, her youngest son (my ancestor) from her first marriage had several children.  One of his daughters married a Carver.  One of his sons had a daughter who married another Carver, brother of the first one..., and first cousins, the son of one married the daughter of the other brother.  In other words, I'm twice-descended from Edward Doty.

              One pretty much needs a pedigree chart complete with lines drawn in to figure all that out.  I resorted to calling all these greats by their names..., and relying on pedigree charts to keep them separate (some have two or three generations with the same names - Uff da!).  I have documented ancestors from seven countries, and a couple of the lineages have documented ancestors before the late 1500s (books were written about them in the 19th & 20th centuries).  Most only go back to the early 1600s, or 1700s..., but that's an awful lot of ancestors.

              Where there are few people among which to choose mates, the "bottleneck effect" makes for multiple descendant relationships where there are half or step siblings..., so of the people who can trace their ancestors back to colonial New England there are only a limited amount of people who have numerous descendants.

              Hope that helps!  :-)

              I'm sick of attempts to steer this nation from principles evolved in The Age of Reason to hallucinations derived from illiterate herdsmen. ~ Crashing Vor

              by NonnyO on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 03:46:08 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

          •  More Norwegian place names (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            NonnyO, Ojibwa
            All cities ending in "by" have a Norse influence.  By is one of the few words that never lost it's traditional spelling and meaning; it has always meant "town," in spite of modern documentaries indicating it means "farm" - a gaard/gård is a farm.
            The Norwegian word for island is "øy" (pronounced "ur"), so this is reflected in the names islands like Jersey (probably "Jersøy" at one time), Orkney, and Guernsey.
            •  Entirely possible / probable (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I'd have to see old documents and note the spelling.

              When that horrid mass murder happened on Utøya I wrote to the Norway genealogy list and asked about the Google translation of the word to something to do with rats.  One of the Norwegians who is a linguist and has studied the transitions of ancient to modern Norse words & definitions is the one who told me øya suffix has more than one meaning.  Apparently Google's dictionary picked one..., and it was the wrong word.

              I'm quite fortunate in that I have an extensive network of people to turn to from different countries who can answer most any questions I have about the three Scandinavian languages, plus transcriptions and translations of notes found in microfilm images that are written in old Dano-Norsk, in particular.

              For common words and sometimes names in old documents, once in a while I can even read old Gothic penmanship..., plus which, there is one web site with examples of upper and lower case letters written in Gothic penmanship.  It all gets very detailed and has to be individualized on a case-by-case basis, depending on the region of Norway and what was going on historically when the records were written, especially since there was no standardized spelling for anything and sometimes the writers used regional dialects.

              Y'know what is really sad?  When I read that grade school and/or high school students today won't be able to read handwriting in the future, I could weep.

              I'm sick of attempts to steer this nation from principles evolved in The Age of Reason to hallucinations derived from illiterate herdsmen. ~ Crashing Vor

              by NonnyO on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 08:52:46 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  Oh, and you do already know... (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              ... (I'm assuming, and one should never assume, I know) the Orkney Islands were invaded by Vikings who settled there..., yes?  Hence, Orkneyinga Saga.

              I'm sick of attempts to steer this nation from principles evolved in The Age of Reason to hallucinations derived from illiterate herdsmen. ~ Crashing Vor

              by NonnyO on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 08:59:16 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  Or simpler, in Icelandic (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Ojibwa, roberb7

              (which is closer to Old Norse) "island" is just "ey".  :)

              It's funny when you start looking at word equivalences. One unexpected one I ran into when undoing vowel morphology shifts was with the Icelandic word "sund", meaning "swimming". Icelandic "u"s are generally equivalent to English "ou"s, meaning that the English equivalent is "sound". Which doesn't seem to have anything to do with "sund" until you think about the fact that sund can also be used for a constrained body of water near the shore, aka, a sound, as in "Prince William Sound" and the like.

              There are also some regional dialects of English from areas with more Norse influence that contain more Norse-origin words which aren't used in other English-speaking areas. For example, in Scottish, the word "bairn" means child. In Icelandic, it's "barn".

              One can also observe more Norse origin placenames in the UK than in the US. For example, there's plenty of "fell"s in the UK, esp. the northern UK and Scotland, with names like Rough Fell, High Fell, Campsie Fells, etc - but you rarely see that in the US. Fell is an Icelandic word for a small mountain or big hill, esp. one not part of a mountain range.

              Já þýðir já. Nei þýðir nei. Hvað er svona erfitt við það?

              by Rei on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 03:30:46 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

      •  I figured that "kennen" was a sure thing, same (6+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        GreyHawk, NonnyO, Aunt Pat, bythesea, koosah, Ojibwa

        language, and all.

        That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

        by enhydra lutris on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 11:27:28 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Old BBC miniseries 'Sunset Song' (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        koosah, Ahianne, Ojibwa

        was set in Ireland and IIRC one line was the guy says to the girl 'Ye ken well how to bother me' or 'confound me' or something.

  •  republished by GFHC (13+ / 0-) we are always talking about our kith and kin, we may as well know what it officially means  ;)

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:10:26 AM PST

  •  Shall kith not kill their kin for me? (6+ / 0-)

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 10:36:30 AM PST

  •  Uncouth! (6+ / 0-)

    Let's not forget that "couth" does still exist, although only in a negative.

    I'm glad you're doing kith and kin. One of my favorite delicate lines is Hamlet's "more kin than kind" in reference to Claudius. It is not merely, "We're more related than alike," but also "more in a family than in a family bond."

    Everyone's innocent of some crime.

    by The Geogre on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 11:50:42 AM PST

  •  Ojibwa grammer is in the eyes of the beholder. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "The power of the word is greater than the power of the sword." imho

  •  Thank You Ojibwa (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne, Ojibwa

    Since all human beings are related, we are all kin.

    "Political ends as sad remains will die." - YES 'And You and I' ; -8.88, -9.54

    by US Blues on Sat Dec 28, 2013 at 05:27:21 PM PST

  •  kinfolk (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ahianne, Ojibwa

    You will sometimes still hear the word kinfolk, meaning relatives.

  •  Or as my deep South ancestors said (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Kiss'n Kin.

    Kin who or are not blood related but to whom you are close enough to kiss when you meet.

  •  Kin/Can (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Interestingly, the Proto-Germanic "*kunnan" is root to not only "kin", but also to "can" and to "could". All of which fill in the gap to how "could" is the opposite of "uncouth".

    For bonus points, the Scottish "ken" comes from that too, and wanders into modern English sometimes.

    "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - HST

    by DocGonzo on Sun Dec 29, 2013 at 08:15:53 AM PST

  •  Icelandic input to the diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Since Icelandic is the closest extant language to Old Norse, which had significant influence on Old English.  :)

    Akin to "kunnan / cunnan / can", in Icelandic the verb for to know is "kunna", which also can mean "may" or "might" in certain contexts. It's a specific form of knowledge - that of having an ability ("I know how to program"), as opposed to knowledge of facts ("I know that one plus one is two") or familiarity/recognition ("I know him" or "I know that place").

    It should be noted that "can" in English is a defective verb. "I see" becomes "I have seen", "I run" becomes "I have run", but what does "I can" become? "I have been able to". English speakers have to switch from using the verb "can" to using the adjective "able" and support it with a state-of-being verb phrase. It's not that way in Icelandic. To be able is "geta". "Ég get" is "I can", while "Ég hef getað" is "I have been able to"

    In Icelandic, "kyn" usually means gender, although it can mean ancestry too - for example, "af góðu kyni" / "of good ancestry". In compounds it sometimes refers to ancestry - such as "kynslóð" (generation) but more commonly refers to sex (most notably in "kynlíf" - sex itself).

    Já þýðir já. Nei þýðir nei. Hvað er svona erfitt við það?

    by Rei on Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 09:25:08 AM PST

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