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Kith and Kin

Posted by Admin on February 27, 2021

Kith and kin originally meant one’s country and relatives, and eventually became a phrase that referred to one’s friends and family.

These days, kith is one of those words that has managed to survive until this day without a meaning beyond this expression which means it’s what linguists refer to as a fossil word. But when this wasn’t the case, kith had a life all its own in language. Its roots are found in the Middle English word kitthe which means homeland or native region, which is from the Old English word cydd.

It’s also part of a select group of phrases known as irreversible binomials. Other irreversible binomials include aid and abet, quick and dirty, and chop and change. An irreversible binomial is where the words always appear in the same order and are never found switched around.

On 6 July 2020, newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Chef Kwame Onwuachi who opened the Kith and Kin restaurant three years earlier in Washington’s Wharf district on the ground floor of the InterContinental Hotel was leaving his restaurant and would no longer be the Executive Chef for Kith and Kin.

The Chicago Tribune ran a news article on 01 December 1995 titled, “Scottish Immigrants Find a Home Away From Home: Retirement Facility Keeps Culture Alive.” The article was about the first philanthropic organization in Illinois known as the St. Andrew Society that was founded 150 years earlier in 1845 by U.S. Army Captain George McClennan. McClennan made a name for himself as a prominent general for the North during the Civil War, and was, of course, of Scottish descent.

The St. Andrew Society was kicking off a capital campaign and the following was reported:

The Scottish Home retirement and nursing home in North Riverside is the heart and soul of the society today, said Alexander Kerr Jr., the society’s president. The home was originally built in 1910, and to mark the society’s 150th anniversary, members have kicked of the $7 million “Kith and Kin” capital campaign, to add a special health-care wing to the current home.

Harold Riffe wrote in his column “Fair and Mild” in the Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail of 03 July 1960 that the expression kissing cousins was, in his opinion, a corruption of kith and kin which he chalked up to a lisp.

As for “kissin’ cousins’ that was only a logical and easy projection of the “kith and kin” idea, and, I might add, a very nice projection, too.

Thuth doth a lithp have romanth!

In 1928, English author and self-styled clergyman Montague Summers (10 April 1880 – 10 August 1948) wrote “The Vampire, His Kith and Kin” wherein he set forth his philosophy of vampirism. His writings focused primarily on witchcraft, vampires, and werewolves, and he was the first to translate the 15th century witch hunter’s manual, “Malleus Maleficarum” into English.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers was ordained a deacon of the Church of England but did not move past that level due in large part to his interest in Satanism and the occult. In time, he began presenting himself as a Catholic priest even though he was not a member of any Catholic order or diocese and was not a Catholic. He was also never ordained a priest of any religious order.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: He was acquainted with Aleister Crowley and while Aleister Crowley adopted the persona of a witch, Montague Summers adopted the persona of a learned witch-hunter.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Montague Summers has the phrase “Tell me strange things” engraved on his headstone, and his manservant Hector Stuart-Forbes is buried with him in the same plot.

American teacher and children’s author Martha Finley (26 April 1828 – 30 January 1909) wrote a number of books over the years, including “Elsie’s Kith and Kin” which was published in 1886 and was the 12th book in the Elsie series of books. In all, Martha Finley wrote twenty-eight Elise Dinsmore books over almost forty years, and the series made Martha Finley one of the most renowned children’s authors of her era with book sales that were second only to Louisa May Alcott.

The expression was used in “A Christmas Carol” by English novelist, journalist, illustrator, and social critic Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870). The book was published on 19 December 1843 and the expression is found in this passage.

“Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your Family,” said Scrooge.

“There are some upon this Earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves; not us.”

Scrooge promised that he would; and they went on, invisible as they had been before, into the suburbs of the town. It was a remarkable property of the Ghost (which Scrooge had observed at the baker’s) that notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease; and that he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall.

The National Bard aka the Bard of Ayrshire, Scottish poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) used the expression in the text of “My Lord A-Hunting” published in 1787. The third verse reads thusly:

My lady’s white, my lady’s red,
And kith and kin o’ Cassillis’ blude;
But her ten-pund lands o’ tocher gude;
Were a’ the charms his lordship lo’ed.

As you can see, the meaning of kith and kin that is understood in the 21st century hasn’t changed in several centuries. In fact, in the Middle English narrative poem by William Langland (1332 – 1390) the idiom is found in “The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman” which is believed to have been written sometimes after the Good Parliament of 1376 and after the Papal Schism of 1379, and was most likely completed some time between 1382 and 1387. The poem was, however the product of thirty year’s labor ad the poem was in a near-constant state of revision during that time.

ORIGINAL: Fer fro kitth and fro kynne yuel yclothed ȝeden.
TRANSLATION: Far from kith and from kin they evil-clothed went.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published example of this idiom however it is an idiom that undoubtedly reaches back much, much farther in light of the fact that Old English was spoken from the 5th through to 11th centuries, and well after the Norman invasion of 1066.

Considering that the oldest surviving literature written in Old English is “Caedmon’s Hymn” from the 7th century, it is possible that an earlier example of the idiom was published prior to William Langland’s epic poem. It’s just that Idiomation did not uncover the idiom in other literary texts prior to Willian Langland’s epic poem.

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