Definition of Kenning

A kenning is a metaphorical compound phrase that replaces a single, concrete noun. A kenning employs figurative language to represent the simpler concept, such as using the phrase “battle-sweat” to refer to blood. Kennings are plentiful in Old Norse and Old English poetry and prose.

The word kenning comes from the Old Norse verb kenna, which means “to know, recognize, perceive, or feel.” While generally the verb “to ken” has fallen out of usage in modern English, there are some dialects in Scotland that still use the word “ken” to mean “know.” There are other words still in usage that have the same etymological root, such as “uncanny.” The definition of kenning comes from medieval Icelandic writings about poetic devices, and was adopted into English in the nineteenth century.

Common Examples of Kenning

In general, kennings are mostly found in Old Norse and Old English works of literature. However, there are a few expressions which are examples of kenning in modern English as well, such as the following:

  • Brown-noser: someone who tries to impress an authority figure to be in good favor
  • Couch-potato: someone who is lazy and sits in front of the TV often
  • Arm-candy: a romantic partner who looks good and may be brought to events to impress others
  • Four-eyes: someone who wears glasses
  • Gas-guzzler: a vehicle that uses up a lot of gasoline to an egregious extent
  • Gum-shoe: a detective
  • Tree-hugger: someone who works to protect the environment
  • Pig-skin: a football
  • Talking-heads: people who give interviews
  • Land-line: a phone that it not a cellular phone
  • Rug-rat: small children who crawl across the floor
  • Cancer-stick: a cigarette
  • Bookworm: someone who reads a lot
  • Head-hunter: someone who looks for new employees at a high level

Significance of Kenning in Literature

Kennings were very popular in a very specific area of the world and time period. Kennings were important in the literature of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, and generally referred to the same set of relatively limited terms. For example, there are many different kennings for ships, such as “wave-swine” and “sea-steed.” Ships were obviously an important element of life for Vikings, and thus poets came up with more elaborate, metaphorical ways of describing them. There are also several kenning examples for sword, such as “icicle of blood,” “leek of war,” and “wound-hoe.” Swords were also, of course, important tools for the warlike groups that created this literature.

Kennings are sometimes transparent, while at times they require certain cultural knowledge such as an understanding of Norse legend or Christian iconography. For example, some kennings might use the name of a Norse god in a descriptive way, such as referring to Odin as “Lord of the gallows” or the “hanged god” (named as such because he hung on the mythical Tree of Knowledge to gain wisdom). The waves were also referred to with the kenning “Ægir’s daughters,” requiring knowledge of tale in which the god Ægir had nine daughters who each represented a different type of wave.

Kennings are often examples of metaphor in that they make connections between previously unrelated concepts in an imaginative way. Through abstracting a common noun in the culture, kennings create a more poetic sense to the poetry or prose. Kennings also often employ alliteration and rhyme to make them more memorable. Sometimes the alliteration and rhyme are lost in Modern English translations of kennings, yet in Modern English kennings we can see the same devices at work (“Head-hunter” as an example of alliteration and “tramp-stamp” as an example of rhyme).

While there are some examples of kennings in Modern English, authors have generally not created kennings for their own works of literature in many centuries. One notable exception was John Steinbeck in his 1950 novella Burning Bright. Steinbeck created kennings such as “wife-loss” and “friend-right,” but these were greeted with skepticism and even scorn.

Examples of Kenning in Literature

Example #1

So the earth-stepper spoke, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin:
Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my care. Among the living
none now remains to whom I dare
my inmost thought clearly reveal.
I know it for truth: it is in a warrior
noble strength to bind fast his spirit,
guard his wealth-chamber, think what he will.

(“The Wanderer,” anonymous)

The Wanderer is an Old English poem that was written in the Exeter Book, a 10th century manuscript. We can find some excellent kenning examples in this short excerpt, including “earth-stepper” and “wealth-chamber.” An earth-stepper refers to a traveler or, of course, a wanderer (i.e., the name of the poem). The “wealth-chamber” refers either to the traveler’s mind or heart, the places—or chambers—where the man’s real wealth lies.

Example #2

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. That man knows not,
to whom on earth fairest falls,
how I, care-wretched, ice-cold sea
dwelt on in winter along the exile-tracks,
bereaved both of friend and of kin,
behung with rime-crystals. Hail showers flew.

(“The Seafarer,” anonymous)

There are numerous examples of kennings in this short excerpt from the anonymous Old English poem “The Seafarer.” Like “The Wanderer,” this poem was part of the Exeter Book. The above lines comprise the beginning of the poem, and in them we can see the following kennings: “truth-song,” “toil-days,” “torment-time,” “breast-care,” “care-hall,” “exile-tracks,” and “rime-crystals.” (Note that not all compound phrases that have a hyphen in this poem are examples of kennings, such as “night-watch” or “sea-weary.” These phrases are not figurative language, but instead explicit descriptors of something).

Example #3

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
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.

(Beowulf, anonymous)

Beowulf is the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English, and was written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries. It is especially noted for its use of kennings, many dozens of which can be found in the poem. The above lines are the first two stanzas of the poem, and already we can see some great examples of kennings. One of the most famous of all kennings is “the whale-road,” which can also be found in The Seafarer (suggesting that kennings were not necessarily linguistic inventions solely on the part of the author, but instead culturally familiar phrases). The “whale-road” refers to the ocean.

Test Your Knowledge of Kenning

1. Which of the following statements is the best kenning definition?
A. To know or perceive something
B. A compound phrase only found in Old Norse prose
C. A metaphorical compound phrase often found in Old Norse and Old English literature that uses figurative language in place of a simple concept
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following compound phrases from modern English is an example of kenning?
A. Fender bender
B. Golden retriever
C. Jazz singer
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. A fender bender is a car accident, and is a kenning example because of the memorable rhyme and its reference to a part of the car in a figurative way. The other two phrases are simply adjective-noun combinations that explicitly describe the thing in question.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from Beowulf contains a kenning example?

Shield was still thriving when his time came
And he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping.


They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,
Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver.


The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. “Ring-giver” is a kenning for the lord, Shield, a man who had the authority and riches to give rings.[/spoiler]