Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of kenning?

The definition of kenning is a metaphorical compound phrase that stands in for a noun.

Kenning

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Last Updated October 25, 2022.

Kennings are compound phrases that can replace a noun. Kennings must have a figurative or metaphorical component—in fact, they are sometimes referred to as compressed metaphors. They are most often found in Old English and Old Norse literary works.

Kenning is an Old Norse word, derived from the Old Norse kenna, meaning “to know, to call.”

For example, “Battle-sweat” is a kenning from Beowulf that refers to blood. Other kennings from Beowulf include “world-fame,” “swan-road,” and “word-hoard.” 

It’s important to avoid misidentifying epithets as kennings. When the Beowulf poet uses “Son of Ecgtheow” to refer to Beowulf, this is not a kenning, as there is no figurative or metaphorical component.

see: epithet

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