What is Kenning?

  • File photo. | Credit Andy Mohr Collision Center

Definition and Examples of Kenning

Kenning refers to a concise phraseOpens in new window used as a metaphorOpens in new window that replaces a name or common nounOpens in new window. Thus, calling a minor car accident a “Fender-bender”, is a typical example of Kenning.

Etymologically, the term kenning is derived from the Old Norse IcelandicOpens in new window verb kenna (to know, recognize), which in the phrase kenna X vid Y means “to call X by Y’s name.”

A kenning typically consists of two elements, both of which are nounsOpens in new window, as in: “surf horse.” One of the nouns, “horse,” is the baseword and the other “surf,” the determinant.

In the baseword the object is named, and in the determinantOpens in new window, it is qualified. At first sight, the two nouns often appear incongruous, but their meaning can be perceived by tracing the relationship of each to one another.

However, some kennings consist more than two elements, and these form of kennings are called double or extended kennings. In a double kenning, the determinant is itself a kenning, as in: “stave of the icicle of battle,” where “icicle of battle” is a kenning for “sword” ; and “stave of the sword,” a kenning for “warrior.”

An extended kenning rarely occurs but when it does, it manifests the determinant to a further kenning, which becomes determinant to yet another kenning, as in: “stave of the icicle of the tumult of axes,” ; where “tumult of axes” is a kenning for “battle,” “icicle of the tumult of axes” a kenning for “sword,” and “stave of the sword,” as noted above, being a kenning for “warrior.”

Notable Examples of Kenning

There are broad categories of kenning, and these are enumerated in the examples below:

A.  Modern Examples of Kenning

KenningsLiteral Meanings
Ankle-biterA very young child.
Bean counterA CPA or an accountant.
BookwormSomeone that reads excessively.
Brown noserSomeone who does anything to gain advantange or approval.
Fender benderA slight car accident.
First LadyWife of the president.
Four-eyesSomeone who wears eye glasses.
Head twisterOwl.
Hot potatoSomething no one wants.
Mind-readerA person who knows what you are thinking.
Motor mouthSomeone who talks a lot and/or fast.
Pencil pusherSomeone with a clerical job
Pig-skinA football.
Postman chaserA dog.
Rug raA toddler or an infant.
Show-stopperAn artist or performer worthy of receiving a standing ovation.
Tree huggerAn environmentalist.
Tree swingerMonkey.
Tummy sliderPenguin.

B.  Weather Related Kennings

KenningsLiteral Meanings.
Boreas’s burningSnow blindness.
Elf-gloryThe sun.
Feather’s fallFalling snow.
Frozen roadIce-covered river.
Northern kissCold wind.
Ship of nightThe moon.
Sky-candleThe sun.
Sky’s black cloakNightfall.
Thor’s laughterThunder.
Weather of wolvesHarsh winter.
White deathkilled by an avalanche.
Winter’s bladeCold wind.
Winter’s blankeSnow.
Winter spearIcicle.

C.  Battle Related Kennings

KenningsLiteral Meanings.
Battle metalWeapons.
Black songReaver’s war cry.
Dew of slaughterBlood.
Feeding the eaglekilling enemies.
Mind's worthHonor.
Toast of ravensBlood.
Traveling the Hel roadDying.
War needlesArrows.
Weather of weaponsLarge-scale battle.

D.  People Related Kennings

KenningsLiteral Meanings.
Bear shirtBerserker (Norse warrior).
Bringer of ringsChieftain or king.
Children of battleSoldiers.
Feller of the life-websSlayer.
Feeder of eagles/ravensWarrior.
Fire beaterA smith.
Forseti’s favoredA diplomat.
Girl of the houseA wife.
Lord of laughterComposer, poet or Norse god Loki
Ring giver Chief.
Rune callerWizard or magician.
Shield-gnawerBerserker (Norse warrior).
Slayer of giantsThor.

E.  Miscellaneous Kennings

KenningsLiteral meanings.
Balder’s giftMistletoe.
Bane of woodFire.
Branches of fjordShip.
Dragon’s bilePoison.
Draught of giantsSudden realization.
Forseti’s failureUnjust decisions.
Frigg’s lapseMistletoe.
Lindworm clawsSkates.
Mimir’s warningProphecy of doom.
Mind's worthHonor.
Odin’s furrowsRunes.
Ribs of UllSkis.
Ring-richA generous person.
Serpent's lairGold.
Sindri’s giftWealth.
Strong brewMistletoe as an ingredient.
Uncut threadDestiny to be fulfilled.
Wind racersHorses.
Wolf’s jointWrist.
Ancestor’s watchA stone circle.
Green clearingShaman’s gathering place
Swan-roadThe sea.
Whale-roadThe ocean.
Whale-wayThe sea.
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