Why do we often say "kith and kin" and not "kin and kith"? I was taught to believe that family comes first and the other later, and I do still believe in what I was taught.

  • 7
    Same reason we say "friends and family". The order words appear in a set phrase does not reflect their moral priority.
    – Dan Bron
    May 15, 2015 at 12:14
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    Because if we say "kin and kith" it sounds like we have a lisp.
    – Oldbag
    May 15, 2015 at 12:21
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    Hi and welcome to EL&U. Feel free to introduce yourself on your page and also feel free to write concise and waffle free questions.
    – mplungjan
    May 15, 2015 at 12:27
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    You may "legally" say it either way. But be prepared for some strange looks, as "kith" is an archaic word that is only used in the expression "kith and kin".
    – Hot Licks
    May 15, 2015 at 12:29
  • 2
    Hi Vishnu, I edited your question to remove irrelevancies. It is the culture here that there is no need for lots of politeness sentences.
    – Mitch
    May 15, 2015 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


I'll try to satisfy your curiosity.

Kith originally meant your native land. So kith and kin was "country and relatives". The idea behind the phrase was that country is more important than family. This sentiment promoted patriotism and people were motivated to leave their families and serve their countries.

Later, kith evolved to mean your society, or your friends and relatives.

Since the relatives part is already covered in kin, the kith in the phrase only stands for friends now, and nobody using it is implying that friends are more important than family.

[source - oxford]

  • The original meaning of kith is really just ‘that which is known’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘that which is familiar’. That could be your country or your people; both meanings were there from the start. It is likely that in this particular phrase, it was intended to mean ‘country’ to begin with, but the word itself always had both meanings. May 15, 2015 at 15:05
  • I found this explanation a bit more lucid which is why I'm choosing this one as the answer. Thank you all for the explanations :)
    – Vishnu
    May 16, 2015 at 16:26

"Kith and Kin" is an example of an irreversible binomial. An irreversible binomial is a co-ordination of words, usually of the same word class (so both nouns, both adjectives and so forth), whose order is idiomatically fixed. Some writers refer to binomials as freezes.

The reasons why these phrases fossilise in a particular order is quite complex. If you're seriously interested you could have alook at this paper here, or this early one by Cooper and Ross.

Most people, including me, find binomials quite fun and interesting to spot. Here's a few for your delectation (As Janus points out in a helpful comment below, some of these might be 'reversible binomials'):

Binomials from nouns:

  • bacon and eggs
  • knife and fork
  • kith and Kin
  • bow and arrow
  • ladies and gentlemen
  • life and soul
  • head and shoulders
  • heaven and hell
  • rythm and blues
  • your money or your life
  • thunder and lightning

Binomials from verbs:

  • duck and dive
  • stand and deliver
  • pushing and shoving
  • wait and see
  • umming and ahing

Binomials with prepositions:

  • above and beyond
  • in and out
  • up and down
  • round and round (not sure if this counts)

And of course there's trinomials too:

  • men, women and children.
  • sex and drugs and rock'nroll (really more of a quadrinomial).
  • in no way, shape or form
  • blood, sweat and tears
  • tall, dark and handsome
  • me, myself and I

Possible explanation for the ordering of "kith and kin"

I cannot give an expert opinion on why kith and kin fossilized in this order. However, from the little I know from Cooper and Ross's paper, one theory would be this: kith and kin have similar meanings and the beginnings of the words are phonetically very similar; they both begin with /kɪ/. It's quite likely that the main factor under such circumstances is that we would prefer the last word to end with a nasal consonant such as /n/, over a fricative such as /θ/.

Cooper and Ross give the following hierarchy for words that differ only in their final consonant (in those pairings where there is no ordering based on semantics for various reasons). Words that end with the types of consonants further to the right in the list below are likely to be in the final position.

  • Stops - Aspirants - Nasals - Liquids - Glides

Basically the more obstruent-like the final consonant the more likely that word is to be first in the pairing. In case you aren't au fait with phonetic terminology, the more "consonant-like" the final consonant is the more likely that word is to be first in the pairing. The more "vowel-like" it is the more likely it is to be second. The final consonant in kith is the fricative /θ/ which would count as an aspirant. The final consonant in kin is the nasal /n/, so this would account for the pairing here.

The reason for my reluctance to state this as the definitive reason is that the meaning of these words has changed over time and there might be some semantic reason that I'm unaware of, why the ordering should be this way.

  • 1
    I agree that "fork and knife" sounds unremarkable, and "eggs and bacon", while not usual, isn't jarring. The rest of your examples would sound Totally Wrong if reversed.
    – Marthaª
    May 15, 2015 at 15:09
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    What's interesting in Cooper and Ross's analysis is that they found that the same phonological rules for order work to determine the order of nonsense freezes like zig-zag, bric-a-brac, criss-cross, shilly-shally, razzle-dazzle, slap-dash, namby-pamby, hickory-dickory-dock. The phonological rules work in cahoots with the semantic criteria that can't apply to nonsense freezes. In other words, sound symbolism is real. May 15, 2015 at 15:42
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    Some of the verb binomials are irreversible because they specify two actions that have to be done in a particular order. For example, a robber shouting "Stand and deliver" is asking his victims to first stand (stop moving), and then deliver (hand over their valuables). Asking them to deliver and then stand would be silly. "Wait and see" is similar. May 15, 2015 at 16:27
  • 1
    Wow, great answer. I sometimes reverse binomials to jar a reader/listener into greater attention. "Jane was the soul and life of the party."
    – John
    May 15, 2015 at 17:09
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    There are also nouns joined by "or" such as dead or alive , now or never, sooner or later; and rain or shine.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 18, 2015 at 12:38

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