Definition and Examples of Kennings in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Manuscript of Beowulf in the British Library London UK
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A kenning is a figurative expression, usually compound in form, that is used in place of a name or noun, especially in Old English.

Kennings as Metaphors

The kenning has been described as a kind of compressed metaphor with the referent suppressed. Commonly used kennings in Old English and Norse poetry include whale-road (for sea), sea-horse (for ship), and iron-shower (for the rain of spears or arrows during a battle).

Kennings in Poetry

"Old English poetry used a special poetic vocabulary ... . [The word] ban-cofa (n) had a special meaning: its two elements were 'bone-den,' but it meant 'body.' Such an expression is a paraphrase, a reference to a thing by concentration on one of its attributes. A person could be called a reord-berend (speech-bearer) because speech is uniquely human. This device of paraphrase was frequent in Old English poetry, and it goes now by the name (borrowed from Old Norse) of 'kenning.'" (W.F. Bolton, A Living Language: The History and Structure of English. Random House, 1982)

"The poets loved kennings because they were opportunities to vary their descriptions when they told long stories of heroes and battles. ... So, what could a ship be? A wave floater, sea goer, sea-house or sea steed. And the sea? A seal bath, fish home, swan road or whale way. Anything could be described using a kenning. A woman is a peace-weaver, a traveller is an earth-walker, a sword is a wolf of wounds, the sun is a sky candle, the sky is the curtain of the gods, blood is battle sweat or battle icicle. There are hundreds more." (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)


"The poets of medieval Scandinavia developed a system of naming by circumlocution, or 'kennings,' which they could expand to a dizzying degree of complexity. They might call the sea 'earth of the fish.' Next, they could replace the word 'fish' by the expression 'snake of the fjord.' Then, they might substitute for 'fjord' the phrase 'bench of the ship.' The result was a strange, prolix thing: 'earth of the snake of the bench of the ship' — which, of course, simply meant 'sea.' But only those familiar with the conceits of poetry would know it." (Daniel Heller-Roazen, "Learn to Talk in Beggars’ Cant." The New York Times, August 18, 2013)

Contemporary Kennings

"We clearly see kenning variation, for instance, in the seventh of the sequence 'Glanmore Sonnets' in [Seamus] Heaney's next volume, Field Work [1979], when names of the BBC Radio 4 shipping forecast (itself possessing the sonority of a formulaic catalogue from early heroic poetry) prompt the poet to expand on the metaphor in the Old English kenning for the sea hronrad ('whale-road,' Beowulf, l. 10):

Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.

... Heaney performs variation not just on the concept signified, but on the signifier itself, echoing the hypnotic chant of the shipping forecast." (Chris Jones, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Kennings in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Kennings in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Kennings in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).