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Archive for the 'Folk Etymology' Category

Kissin’ Kin

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Nicholas King wrote a few days ago:

“I associate the word kin with the phrase ‘kith and kin’. Which leads me to ask two follow up questions:

  1. Whence the word kith?
  2. Might the German word for child, Kind, be a linguistic relative?”

Actually, the two are only accidentally similar. Kith is related to German kennen “be acquainted with”, and originally meant “knowledge, things known”. It survives disguised in two forms in English today, can and uncouth. I think there may be isolated Scottish dialects where they still say “I ken you” for “I know you”. It is also related to know and the -gnos- of Latin cognosco, etc. So kith originally referred to acquaintances, someone you know.

Kin, on the other hand, comes from the same source as gen- “give birth, create” found in words like generation, generate and, by the way, gynecology from Greek gyne “woman”. (Get the connection?) In German it popped up as Kind “child”.

When kith vanished from the English language, the phrase “kith and kin” remained. Since English speakers no longer knew the meaning of kith, they substituted a word they did know and which made some sense: kissin’ kin. Only a lithp separates the two words. This process is known as folk etymology about which I have written elsewhere.