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What is a Kenning?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many people have read or even used a kenning in conversation without realizing it. Essentially, a kenning is a synonym composed of several words that may be used in place of a single word. This approach is one of the ways that color and emphasis may be added to both the written word and the spoken word.

The development of the kenning has its origins in the ancient cultures of the Norse and the Celts. As part of the popular culture, storytellers and minstrels both would look for creative ways to conjure up images with the subject matter of their art. Essentially, this would involve finding colorful ways to use the most mundane objects. For example, the ocean may be referred to in the fanciful manner as being the land of the whales, while a simple tree limb may be envisioned as being a roadway for the squirrels.

Along with use as figures of speech in songs and stories, kennings also function as a basic tool in the crafting of the poetic phrase. Because the basic verbal formula of the kenning is to take the mundane and utilize a descriptive phrase to cultivate mental images that are relevant to the emphasis of the composer, kennings provide an ideal means of taking just about anything and turning it into something that is quite extraordinary. For instance, the Celtic expression of a sword dance is certainly an example of kenning that is used repeatedly in many types of literature, including poetry. To many, a kenning is a magic poetic phrase that, when used properly, will take the work to a level it could never have attained otherwise.

It is possible to take the process of developing a kenning too far. For instance, choosing to create a kenning for every word in a string of words can lead to confusion on the part of the reader, and kill the imagery before it has a chance to begin. For this reason, many writers choose to limit the use of the kenning, utilizing the literary device when there is a need to direct the reader toward a particular image or understanding of the action and elements that are being presented.

While there are those who see the using of kennings as fixed to an absolute formula, many chose to interpret the kenning in a broader light. This has made the continuing use of the kenning in all forms of literature a viable option. Whether drafting epithets, composing a new poem, writing a short story, or developing a new son, the kenning is a time honored device that is sure to add to the mystique and appeal of the written word.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By widget2010 — On Oct 06, 2010

@sapphire12, I teach British Literature and just finished teaching Beowulf, actually. Another important part about kennings is that they were a way for the storyteller to tell different things about a character, such as when Beowulf is called "Hygelac's thane," "Hero of the Geats," et cetera. They also served as a way for the storyteller to better remember the story, before the era when it was written down.

By sapphire12 — On Oct 06, 2010

Kennings can also be called "epic similes". They are a large part of the epic poem Beowulf, though they can also be found in other Anglo-Saxon poetry, stories, and even riddles.

By milagros — On Dec 21, 2008

I like the sun - sky candle, or wind - breaker of trees.

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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