Kennings: I've Made a Little List

02/09/2016 11:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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The American Heritage Dictionary defines a kenning as "a figurative, usu[ally] compound expression used in place of a name or noun, esp[ecially] in Old English and Old Norse poetry." In a recent article about metaphor and law, I had occasion to list a few favorite kennings. However, that pleasure reminded me of two sources of displeasure. First, I've yet to find an ample yet convenient inventory of old kennings and their kin. Second, few if any people today seem to enjoy the sport of creating new and thoughtful kennings.

How can this lack of interest not embarrass us moderns? If the simpler Viking can create the great "whale's road" to name or "replace" his sea, what greater kennings can we not create to name or "replace" our internet, our cell phones, our laptops, and our other fantastic tools of modern life?

In hopes of accomplishing two tasks (conveniently cataloguing some old kennings and inspiring thoughtful and amazing modern ones), I've therefore come up with a little list of past societies' mind-benders that never should be missed. (Unlike the Mikado's Koko, I of course mean that they should not be overlooked.) I've included some politically-incorrect kennings for the sake of more completeness and for their insight into past world views that we've thankfully transcended. Perhaps the list can inspire more thoughtful replacements. Here goes:

ALE: "horn froth."
ALE-HORN: "horn-froth's fjordland."
ANGELS: "host of the world's roof."
ARM(S): "hawk's land," "hawk slopes," "hawk-fells," "falcon perches," "shoulder branches," "bow forcer," "shoulder leg."
ARROW: "wound wasp," "whispering gosling," "wound gosling," "hail from strings," "bows' hail."
BATTLE: "shield storm," "spear thaw," "spear din," "storm of spears," "quarrelling of swords," "axe storm," "metal shower," "sword spell," "sword storm," "sword meeting," "beating of blades," "darts' shower," "helmet's storm," "twanging shower," "roar of shields," "Odin's storm," "Odin's blizzard," "pounding of steel," "wolves' feast," "game of iron," "politics of steel," "spear parliament."
BEAR: "greedy tooth," "winter survivor," "forest walker," "ice wolf."
BEARD: "chin forest," "chin trees," "chin hedge."
BLOOD: "spear river," "wound sweat," "wound river," "wound sea," "shield wave," "dew of deep wounds," "raven wine," "raven beer," "gum flame," "serpent's dew," "mead of wounds," "corpse heap wave," "corpse sea," "corpse dew."
BRACELET: "arm serpent."
BREAST: "mind's fort," "thought land."
CORPSE: "blood's seat."
COWARD: "spear shy."
DROWNED MEN: "billow's burden."
EAGLE: "corpse scorer," "shrill crier," "blood gull," "bird of blood," "storm cleaver," "wound cleaver."
EARTH/LAND: "floor of the winds' hall," "elk sea," "sea of the animals," "Ymir's flesh."
EYE: "eyelash moon," "light of cheeks," "forehead stone," "aimer," "eyebrow stone," "eyebrow sun," "eyebrow moon."
FEET: "sole palms."
FIRE: "wind's brother," "sun of houses," "slayer of houses," "sparkler," "beacon."
FIST: "arm's mouth."
FOREHEAD: "brow's sky."
FRIEND: "counsel sharer," "bench mate."
GAZE: "beam from the eyelash moon."
GENEROUS MAN: "jewel foe," "attacker of treasure," "ring breaker," "ring spoiler," "harsh one to gold," "gold's diminsher," "hoard diminisher," "hoard robber."
GIANT: "land whale."
GLANCE: "beam of the eyelash moon," "brow beam."
GOLD: "sea-fire," "sea blaze," "sea sun," "sea amber," "fjord flame," "forearm's rock," "arm's fires," "falling sun."
HAIR: "head-sedge," "head forest," head trees," "skull forest," "skull trees."
HAND: "hawk's plain," "ring land," "bow land."
HEAD: "hat's perch," "hair seat," "hair land," "cap's land," "ear bed," "neck's burden," "neck's toil," "helmet land."
HEART: "power stone," "valor stone," "house of thought," "stone of thought."
ICE: "fjord's helmet."
KILLER: "mound hastener."
LEGS: "trees of the soles."
MAN: "sword polisher," "dung bearer," "bucket sinker," "beguiler of scythes," "sinker of treasures," "lord of lodgings," "gold breaker," "caster of gold," "bush," "shrub," "woman presser," "loser of tears," "sword inviter," "treasure giver."
MISERLY MAN: "wealth warder."
MOON: "waxer," "waner," "year counter," "gleamer," "squinter."
MOUNTAIN: "hawk's land," "eagle or shrill crier hall," "lynx's sea," "earth drift," "ridge land."
MOUTH: "tongue land," "teeth land," "word land," "lip land," "tongue house," "teeth house," "word house," "lip house."
NECK: "necklace stand."
NIGHTS: "raven's lives."
OX: "yoke bear."
PALM: "grip's breast."
PILLAR: "wall leg."
POET: "sweller of praise," "server of Odin's wine," "handler of Odin's drink," "Odin's thought-smith," "skilled smith of rhyme."
POETRY: "Odin's wine," "Odin's due," "Odin's ale," "Odin's drink," "beer for Odin," "Odin's mead," "Odin's holy drink," "Odin's booty," "dwarf's mead," "giant's mead."
RAVEN: "blood gosling," "wound sea's bird," "battle gull," "flesh marker."
RIVER: "fish trap forest."
RIVER CURRENT: "first trap forest wind."
ROCKS/STONES: "land bones," "fjord bones," "earth's hard shoulder lumps," "water's teeth," "land's teeth."
SAILOR: "sea-beast shrub," "ship impeller."
SAUSAGES: "pot snakes."
SEA: "eel land," "fish trail," "foam path," "ship's road," "fishing bank," "lobster's path," "red fish's dwelling," "mackerel's seat," "prow land," "snow road," "land of fish," "house of seaweed," "land of seabirds," "land of sailing wind," "Ymir's blood," "island fetter," "dwelling of the ships," "man's encircler," "flat one."
SHIELD(S): "Odin's clouds," "strife clouds," "spear meadow," "sword plain," "sword's board," "battle wall," "moving cliff."
SHIP: "sea's horse," "rowing-bench steed," "channel steed," "rigging steed," "billow steed," "wave steed," "wave horse," "harbor horse," "steed of the bay," "wind steed," "wind's horse," "river stallion," "foam land's stallion," "shore ski," "wave charger," "wind beam," "mast-top beast," "wave beast," "tossing horse," "flood's horse," "straits animal," "fjord serpent," "sea reindeer," "slipway bison."
SHOULDER: "hawk's land."
SILVER: "arm's ice," "arm's snow," "joint's frost."
SKULL: "eye sky," "eyelash moon sky."
SKY: "mountains' hall," "sea's hall," "world's hall," "moon's way," "hawk's sanctuary," "sun's dwelling," "Ymir's skull," "sun's helmet," "moon's helmet," "earth's helmet," "house of air," "land of stars," "moon's land," "sun's land," "land of winds," "constellations' land," "sun's ground," "constellations' path," "world's high tent," "sun's tent," "day's base," "Ymir's skull," "wide winds' basin," "storm vat," "bird world," weather world."
SNAKES: "land fishes," "valley trout," "valley fish," "coiling eels," "reed thong."
SPEAR: "shooting snake," "set point."
SUMMER: "comfort of the snakes," "valley fish's mercy."
SUN: "day fire," "high wandering flame."
SWORD(S): "shield serpents," "shield snakes," "shield thorns," "shield danger," "battle snake," "serpent of blood," "wound serpent," "fist wands," "slaying wands," "hand's bear," "bruin of blood," "battle fire," "blood reed," "blood wand," "Odin's fire," "shield fire," "blaze of the shield wave," "blade hound," "battle wolf," "carrion maker," "death rod," "drubbing thorn," "war twig," "killing twig," "wound sickles," "cold hammer's comrade," "man's doom," "battle leek," "sheath eel."
TEARS: "eye rain."
TEETH: "song's skerries," "gum skerries," "mouth rocks," "word rocks," "tongue rocks."
THOUGHT: "wind of troll wives."
TONGUE: "word meadow," "mouth oar," "mouth rudder," "sword of speech," "sword of mouth."
VEINS: "blood tracks."
WAVE: "whale roof ridge," "whale's housetop," "eel land slope," "sea mountain."
WARRIOR: "fighting pine," "shield storm stirrer," "battle tree," "battle sweller," "feeder of wolves," "mail-coat's tree," "shield tree," "ruler of the shield," "wound-stick's desirer," "reddener of shields," "sword-point's reddener," "tree of the sword," "sword plain's keeper," "strife snatcher," "battle bush," "bow wielder," "spear pointer," "weapon wielder," "battle shirt birch," "storm tree," "steel-chant stirrer," "helmet's staff."
WEAPON: "wound stick."
WIND: "tree breaker," "tree slayer," "tree killer," "sail slayer," "rigging harmer."
WINTER: "snakes' death," "snake woe."
WOLF: "bush grinner."
WOMAN: "necklace-sleigh," "necklace-ground," "ribbon-yearner," "linen land," "land of the cloak," "fir-tree of gold," "fir tree with headband," "scarf tree," "chariot of gold," "brooch bearer," "brooch bed," "gold island."

This little list is drawn from some Sagas of Warrior Poets and from Sturlson's Edda (and the language of their respective translators).

What modern kennings can we create to join this list? To better it? To replace what we've outgrown? I ask because I'd never want to be: ". . . the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, [a]ll centuries but this, and every country but his own."