A kenning is a metaphoric compound used in place of a noun in Old English and Old Norse poetry. Poems like Beowulf are saturated with kennings - these devices were clearly thought of as one of the most artful forms of poetic expression. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "kenning" was first used in medieval Icelandic treatises on poetry. The term is related to the Old English word cennan, to declare, and the Old Norse kenna, to know or to name.

Kennings are often beautiful and mysterious - they are like delicious little riddles that constantly pop up, and figuring them out can be both challenging and fun.

For example:

OE: hron rad, or "whale road" = the sea

ON: hranna há-dýr, or "great wave beasts" = ships

ON: svana fjöll, or "swans' mountains" = waves

OE: roderes candel, or "Heaven's candle" = the sun

OE: banhus, or "bone house" = the human body

OE: lyftfloga or "sky-flyer" = a dragon

Some kennings are more obscure and thus harder to decipher, for example:

OE: fugol wyn or "bird's joy" = feather

OE: fela laf or "files' leaving" = sword (i.e. what is left when the metal is filed)

Some of these old poetic devices entered common usage, and a few even survive to this day. For example:

ON: vindauga, or "wind eye", became Middle English windoghe which became modern English "window".

Ken"ning (?), n. [See Ken, v. t.]

1.

Range of sight.

[Obs.]

Bacon.

2.

The limit of vision at sea, being a distance of about twenty miles.

 

© Webster 1913.

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