Kennings are most commonly found in poetry, specifically Old English and Old Norse literature. A kenning is two nouns that are placed together, usually using hyphens, to create a new word or compound. The word that is created is something new. It may or may not have anything to do with the two original nouns. When a kenning is used to refer to something else, that thing is known as the kenning’s referent.
Definition and Explanation of Kenning
Kennings are a type of figurative language and circumlocution. The latter refers to a literary technique in which more words are used when fewer would suffice. This is usually done in an attempt to evade a topic or be purposely vague. Kennings specifically use more words than are necessary but are usually interesting additions to a literary work. Their use allows the poet to change the overall meaning of the words. When the two are combined they make an entirely new word that has nothing to do with the two original words.
Parts of a Kenning
A kenning is made up of two words, the base word, and the determinant. The first of these is the stand-in for the referent or the thing to which the entire word refers. It has something metaphorically similar to the referent. There is a connection between them, whether it is obvious or not the reader is up for interpretation. The second part, the determinant, changes the meaning of the base word. For example, “battle-sweat” meaning “blood” and “flame-farewelled” meaning “death.” Here are a few more examples that are taken from Old Norse and Old English pieces of writing:
- Mind’s worth: honor
- Bait-gallows: hook
- Whale-road: the sea
- Valley-trout: serpent
- Wave-swine: ship
- Sea-steed: ship
- Heaven-candle: sun
- Blood-worm: sword
- Blood-embler: axe
- Spear-din: battle
Examples of Kennings
Beowulf is one of the primary sources of kennings that is available for study today. It is an epic poem, consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines and is one of the most important Old English works of literature. Scholars have yet to determine an exact date for its composition, or an author. It is likely produced sometime between 975 and 1025. It tells the story of Beowulf, a hero who comes to the aid of the king of the Danes, Hrothgar. He arrives in order to defeat Grendel, a monster who has been attacking the mead hall for many nights.
Kennings are used throughout the story. Take a look at this passage, translated from Old English:
[…] bright blade, when the blood gushed o’er it,
battle-sweat hot; but the hilt I brought back
from my foes.
In this passage, the Beowulf poet uses “battle-sweat,” a kenning that means blood. Here is another excerpt that uses a famous kenning:
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Here, the poet uses the very well-known compound “whale-road,” a clever way of describing the sea.
The Seafarer is another very popular Old English poem. It too is without an author or a determined date of composition. One of the most commonly read versions was translated by Ezra Pound, the well-known imagist poet. The poem details the life of a seafarer and the ups and downs of his profession. The poet speaks about his misery on the cold sea, his desire to see his family and friends, and the longing in his soul to return to the sea again and again.
In this poem, there are also good examples of kennings. Here is an excerpt from the poem that shows off how frequently kennings were used:
About myself I can utter a truth-song,
tell journeys – how I in toil-days
torment-time often endured,
abode and still do bitter breast-care,
sought in my ship many a care-hall,
horrible waves’ rolling, where narrow night-watch
often has kept me at the ship’s stem
when it dashes by cliffs. Pinched by the cold
were my feet, bound by frost’s
frozen fetters, where those cares sighed
hot about heart; hunger within tore
the mind of the sea-weary one.
Here, the poet uses words like “truth-song,” “toil-days,” “breast-care,” and “care-hall” to describe his experiences. There are some other interesting ones in later lines like “rime-crystals” and “exile-tracks.”
Kennings vs. Epithets
Kennings and epithets are used in place of things, or alongside things, that are being described. but, they are quite different from one another. An epithet is used to characterize a person or a thing. For instance, “the Great,” used to refer to Alexander and the famous examples, “snot-green sea” and “scrotum-tightening sea” from Ulysses by James Joyce.
Examples of Modern Kennings
While kennings are usually tied to Old English poetry, there are contemporary examples. For instance:
- Bookworm: lover of books
- Couch-potato: a lazy person
- Four-eyes: someone who wears glasses
- Gum-shoe: detective
- Tree-hugger: someone who wants to protect the environment
- Cancer-stick: a cigarette
- Arm-candy: an attractive romantic partner who impresses one’s social group
Why Do Writers Use Kennings?
Writers use kennings to make their descriptions more interesting and easier to understand. Despite the fact that they can be categorized as a circumlocution, kennings add more to the text than they take away. They put together two things that make something new. This new word is usually far more descriptive and interesting than others available to the writer. Over time, old and new kennings spread from one written work into the next, then eventually into everyday language.
Related Literary Terms
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
- Idiom: a short-expression that means something different than its literal translation.
- Adage: a short, familiar, and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
- Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.