What Is a Modern-Day Kenning?

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Modern-day examples of kennings include “fender bender” instead of car accident and “first lady” in place of the female spouse of a country’s leader. A kenning is defined as a compressed metaphor, usually two or three words, that describe a common term.

Kennings originated in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry. A “whale road” stood in for the term “sea.” A boat was a “wave traveler.” The epic poem “Beowulf” is one example of classic literature replete with classic kennings. “Battle-gear” was the kenning for armor and “light-of-battle” was a term for a sword.

Examples of kennings exist in contemporary language. “Brown noser” means someone who tries to overly impress another person. A “mind reader” stands in for a person who supposedly knows what someone else is thinking. “Four eyes” is a person who wears glasses. The phrase “pencil pusher” is an employee who has a desk job with a lot of book work.

Some poets specialize in kennings. Kevin Crossley-Holland describes a poet as a “word-finder” in his poem “Beachcomber.” Judith Nicholls’ poem “Bluebottle” utilizes kennings throughout her piece that is itself a large riddle. Polly Peters and Andrew Fusek Peters constructed two poems entirely made of short metaphors. These literary conventions are still used today despite their origins in ancient Norse literature.