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.