All terms

What is a Kenning?

A compound expression used in Old English and Old Norse poetry to describe common objects or concepts.

Kenning: Widening Our Vocabulary With Marvelous Metaphors

In creative writing, a kenning is a figure of speech that uses compound expression to describe common objects or concepts, frequently employed in Old English and Old Norse poetry.

A kenning consists of two nouns, often hyphenated, which function as a metaphor for the original noun, enriching the meaning of the sentence. For instance, a kettle could be referred to as a 'water-warmth container,' a ship as a 'wave-floater,' or the sea as a 'whale-road.'

By using kennings, poets can elevate their writing, creating vivid and imaginative images that go beyond the literal meaning of the object being described. Kennings open up new possibilities of expression, allowing us to widen our vocabulary and challenge our creativity, all the while adding humor, beauty or mystery to our prose or poetry.

Kenning in Literature: Exploring Examples from Beowulf and The Seafarer
Two masterpieces of Old English poetry that showcase the use of kennings.
Beowulf: Of Monsters and Bloody Battles

Considered one of the greatest works in Old English literature, 'Beowulf' makes abundant use of kennings to convey heroic deeds and thrilling action scenes. For example, the poem refers to the antagonist Grendel as a 'shepherd of evil,' and the dragon as a 'guardian of the mound,' while in battle, the protagonist is described as a 'ring-giver' and a 'breaker of swords.'

The Seafarer: Of Ships and Seafaring Life

This poem, written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon author, is a poignant meditation on the joys and hardships of seafaring life, and it abounds in kennings that evoke the beauty and dangers of the ocean. The sea is compared to a 'swan-road,' a 'whale-path,' and a 'seal's bath,' while the ship serves as a 'foam-neck,' a 'sea-rider,' and a 'cliff-hanger.'