The Grammarphobia Blog

Watkins, catkins, and other kin

Q: Is the “kin” in words like “pumpkin,” “catkin,” and “Watkins” related to the “kin” that are your relatives? I’m guessing it’s not.

A: You’re right. The noun “kin” that means your relatives is no relation to the suffix we see in words like “catkin.”

The noun “kin” has conveyed the same general notion—roughly, a group of connected people—for about 1,200 years. But the suffix “-kin” is a diminutive that came into English some 400 years later.

The earlier “kin” was first recorded in Old English around the year 825 in the sense of a group “descended from a common ancestor,” as well as a people, a nation, or a tribe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 

By as early as 875 “kin” was used in writing to mean what it chiefly does today—“the group of persons who are related to one; one’s kindred, kinsfolk, or relatives, collectively.”

Ultimately, however, “kin” comes from an ancient prehistoric root meaning knowledge or kind.

The Indo-European root gn– or gno-, which gave Greek the word gnosis (knowledge), is also the source, through proto-Germanic, of “kin” as well as “kith” (which originally meant friends and neighbors), “kind” (the noun), “know,” “knowledge,” “ken,” “cunning,” and others.

(As we wrote in 2011, some other descendants of this prehistoric root came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and many more.)

As for the other “-kin,” which conveys the notion of smallness, we haven’t found any etymological explanations for it.

But it does correspond to diminutive suffixes in the historical as well as modern Dutch and German languages: –kijn, –ken, kîn, chîn, and chen. Oxford mentions the modern German nouns kindchen (little child) and häuschen (little house).

This “-kin” didn’t come into English right away. As the OED remarks, “No trace of the suffix is found in Old English.”

Instead, it began cropping up in the mid-13th century in men’s nicknames, which the OED says “were either adoptions or imitations of diminutive forms current in Flanders and Holland.”

Thus first names like “Jankin” (an affectionate diminutive of John), “Watkin” (a pet name for Walter), and “Wilkin” (a familiar form of Will or William) began appearing in Middle English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Other such pet names, spelled a variety of ways, included “Perkin” (a diminutive of Per or Peter), “Filkin” (for Philip), “Simkin” (for Simon), “Timkin” (for Timothy), “Dawkin” (for David), and “Hawkin” (perhaps a diminutive of Hugh or Henry).

As first names for men, these “seem to have mostly gone out of fashion shortly after 1400,” the OED says. But most of them “survived as surnames, usually with the addition of -s or -son, as JenkinsWatkinsWilkinsonDickensDickinson, etc.”

So while the suffix hasn’t been used much to form nouns in English, it’s still alive in the names of countless people.

The few diminutive common nouns that end in “-kin” may have been influenced by the personal names, Oxford suggests.

These diminutive forms, and the dates they were first recorded, include “napkin” (1384-85), “bodkin” (a small dagger, 1386), and “firkin” (a small cask, 1423).

As for “catkin” (1578), it’s a genuine diminutive but it wasn’t formed in English. It was taken from katteken, Dutch for a little cat as well as a catkin (one of the fuzzy things hanging from willows, birches, and other trees).

However, there’s nothing diminutive about the big orange squash that we call a “pumpkin,” though the OED says the spelling was influenced by the “-kin” suffix in other words.

The spelling “pumpkin” was first recorded in 1647. Before that, the vegetable was referred to as a “pompion” (1526) or “pumpion” (1599). The word had been adopted from pompom, Middle French for a melon or squash.

Perhaps English speakers found the “pumpkin” spelling more natural, since they were already familiar with the “-kin” ending in such words as “jerkin” (the garment, 1519); “bumpkin” (1570); “pipkin” (drinking vessel, 1554), and “gherkin” (the pickle, 1661).

We can’t close without mentioning a much later, genuine diminutive—“Munchkin,” which L. Frank Baum invented for the little people in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

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