The Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse traditions have a word for a compound expression with a metaphorical meaning: kenning. Simply put, in poetry, a kenning is when you take two words and combine them as a mild translation or metaphor for something else.
So, as you’re sitting by the fire one night, enjoying an anthology of Scandinavian poetry, you might come across poem about five brave men aboard a wave-floater (a ship). Kennings were often used to describe everyday people, animals, and objects.
To no surprise, they were used to brighten up an author’s prose. Why say “a ship” when you can use something more illustrious like “wave floater”? Let’s enjoy further examples of kenning.
Similar to how we incorporate similes and metaphors in our prose, kennings can provide an added layer of intrigue and beauty. Let’s take a look at some modern expressions that have their roots in kennings.
- Ankle biter = a very young child
- Bean counter = a bookkeeper or accountant
- Bookworm = someone who reads a lot
- Brown noser = a person who does anything to gain approval
- Fender bender = a car accident
- First Lady - the wife of the president
- Four-eyes = someone who wears glasses
- Head twister = an owl
- Hot potato = something no one wants
- Mind reader = a person who knows what you are thinking
- Motor mouth = a person who talks a lot and/or quickly
- Pencil pusher = a person with a clerical job
- Pigskin = a football
- Postman chaser = a dog
- Rugrat = a toddler or crawling baby
- Showstopper = a performance receiving long applause
- Tree hugger = an environmentalist
- Tree swinger = a monkey
- Tummy slider = a penguin
The next time you’re calling your little niece or nephew an “ankle biter,” know you have something in common with the Vikings of long ago. Given its origins in poetry, let’s take a look at two poetic samples of kennings in action.
Anytime we create a two-word construct for a singular noun, we’re approaching kenning territory. Take a look at this sample children’s poem from Bic Kids, made almost entirely of kennings:
Put these together,
I’m a bird!
Now, onto the classics. The epic poem Beowulf is chock full of kennings. It’s penned by an unknown author, although we do know it has its origins in Anglo-Saxon literature. One of the most prominent scenes details Beowulf’s fight against the monster Grendel. Perhaps to fully illuminate it, the author leaned heavily on kennings to paint a graphic picture.
Here are some kennings pulled from that fight scene, as well as the rest of the epic poem:
- Battle-adornèd = armed and armored (for battle)
“Go to the bench now, battle-adorned.”
- Battle-gear = armor
“‘Mid the battle-gear he saw a blade triumphant, old-sword of Eotens, with edge of proof, warriors’ heirloom, weapon unmatched.”
- Battle sweat = blood
“That war-sword then all burned, bright blade, when the blood gushes o’er it, battle-sweat hot; but the hilt I brought back from my foes.”
- Giver-of-rings = king
“Ne’er heard I of host in haughtier throng more graciously gathered round giver-of-rings!”
- Light-of-battle = sword
“But the warrior found the light-of-battle was loath to bite, to hard the heart.”
- Shepherd-of-evils = Grendel
“Soon then saw that shepherd-of-evils that never he met in this middle-world, in the ways of earth, another wight with heavier hand-gripe.”
- Heaven’s candle = the sun
“Then blazed forth light. ‘Twas bright within as when from the sky there shines unclouded heaven’s candle.”
- Whale-path = sea or ocean
“For he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, till before him the folk, both far and near, who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, gave him gifts: a good king he!”
Nature and poetry have been lovers since the dawn of time. As such, you won’t be surprised to learn there are many kennings which relate to nature.
- Ancestor's watch = a stone circle
- Bane of wood = fire
- Boreas's burning = snow blindness
- Branches of fjord, Wave-swine = ship
- Dragon's bile = poison
- Feather's fall = falling snow
- Frozen road = ice-covered river
- Green clearing = a shaman's gathering place
- Northern kiss = cold wind
- Ribs of Ull = skis
- Serpent's lair = gold
- Ship of night = the moon
- Sky's black cloak = nightfall
- Sky candle = the sun
- Thor's laughter = thunder
- Weather of wolves = harsh winter
- White death = killed by an avalanche
- Wind racers = horses
- Winter's blanket = snow
- Winter spear = icicle
The author of Beowulf turned to kennings for good reason. He wanted to describe the horrible loss of life and torturous scars of battle with bright imagery. Simple language would never do to describe the horrors of war. As such, here are some battle kennings that might strike up a bold image.
- Battle metal = weapons
- Black song = war cry
- Blood ember = axe
- Dew of slaughter = blood
- Feeding the eagle = killing enemies
- Mind's worth = honor
- Traveling the Hell road = dying
- War needles = arrows
- Weather of weapons = large-scale battle
People are, perhaps, the most baffling of all. The next time you’re trying to describe a complex character in your short story or poem consider creating a kenning. Here’s some inspiration to kick things off:
- Bear shirt = Norse warrior
- Bringer of rings = chieftain or king
- Children of battle = soldiers
- Feller of life-webs = slayer
- Feeder of eagles/ravens = warrior
- Lord of laughter = composer, poet
- Ring rich = a generous person
- Rune caller = wizard
- Slayer of giants = Thor
- Wolf's joint = wrist
Then, of course, there are all the abstract components of life. We have our thoughts, emotions, fears, and wonderings that can’t be seen or touched. Still, that doesn’t preclude them from a clever kenning or two.
- Draught of giants = sudden realization
- Forseti's failure = unjust decisions
- Mimir's warning = prophecy of doom
- Uncut thread = destiny to be fulfilled
- Wind of troll wives = thought
Go for it! Be bold and add a clever kenning or two to your next body of work. It would be difficult to label a unique kenning a cliché. So, have some fun and insert one or two in your next piece of literature or poem.
For some inspiration, enjoy these examples of free verse poems. Then, let your hair down while you dip your latest poem in clever kennings from the past.