K is for Kennings

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Kennings are literary devices that were prevalent in Old Norse, Germanic, Icelandic, and later Anglo-Saxon poetry. They combine words or phrases to create new compounds. These concise new compounds represent an object, person, place, idea, or action. The substitute wording or figurative phrases usually are created by hyphenating two words.

Kenning is easiest understood by seeing it in use.

“Beowulf” used kennings extensively. “Ring-giver” meant king or prince. “Battle-sweat” referred to blood. The sun was called “Sky-candle,” the ocean the “whale-road,” the sea “Swan-way,” and a sword “light-of-battle.”

Snorri Sturluson is credited with such Kennings as “spear-din” for battle, “bane-of-wood” for fire, and “girl-of-the-house” for wife. (The last is modified in modern times to lady-of –the-house.)

“Mind’s-worth” stands for honor and “Sun-table” the sky. A “bone-yard” is a cemetery.

In Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” he calls the moon “luminary clock.” William Shakespeare called it a “Celestial-orb.” J.R.R. Tolkien incorporated his great linguistic skills to incorporate kennings in his literature. Kennings provide follow-ups to names and titles, like “Thor, Thunder-bringer” and “Odin One-eye, All-father.”

Modern kennings include “Heaven’s tears” representing rain, “Bean-counter” for accountant, “mind-reader” for a psychic, “pig-skin” for football, and “fender-bender” for a small car accident.

My favorite kenning, for reasons obvious to anyone who knows me, is “book-worm.”

There are examples of compound kennings in literature. These are one embedded within another. The whole is said to be doubly-determined or twice-modified. For example, “Provider to the swans-of-the-mead” -“means-of-battle,” they lie, “providers-to-ravens” and “swans of blood.” (Battles spill the blood of fallen warriors for ravens.)