Clever Old English Kennings

Clever Old English Kennings

Have Fun with These or Make Up Your Own

Now that we know what Old English kennings are, it’s time to have a little fun. I’ve compiled a list of unusual compounded words that err on the humorous side. I doubt they were meant that way at the time they were invented. Each of the popular writers of the time surely were striving to be the most clever. However, the Old English era was not necessarily a jolly one with its constant battles and efforts by warring countries to take control. These gems, however, have turned up in writings that range from Beowulf to “The Dream of the Rood.”

Literally, the word “kenning” translates into “to teach” or “to know.” These word pairings aren’t basic metaphors, either. They can add a new level of meaning to common words of the day.

Word pairings from Old English poems and literature:

bait-gallows = fishing hook
battle-sweat = blood
breaker of trees = wind
earth-hall = burial mound
heath-stepper = deer
joy of the sky = dawn
mead-bench = throne
ring-giver = king
sea-wood = ship
sky-candle = the sun
spirit-chest = the human mind
storm of swords = battle
triumph-tree = Christ’s cross

Creating kennings is a challenging and fun exercise for children. Adults can also have a little fun with words, whether it’s a brainstorming session or as entertainment.

The setup of kennings looks something like this if you’re writing them on a chalkboard or on paper:

darkness : night  :: helmet : cover

(darkness is to night as helmet is to cover)


darkness      helmet
- - - - - -  ::   - - - - -
night            cover

Either of these methods will make it easy to come up with new kennings for some of today’s words.

Photo public domain: ship illustration from Caedmon