Sunday, October 02, 2022

MLP kens her kennings

| August 9, 2022 1:00 AM

Want to learn something you didn’t know you knew?

Mrs. Language Person, that Snitty Old Biddy, is a poseur. Just look at the name; could it be more pretentious? Such an appellation connotes a (self-appointed) expert, but she’s not the word wizard she purports to be. Ever-learning is she, sometimes from her (two, perhaps three) faithful readers.

Case in point: The kenning. If that one’s new to you, you’re not alone. MLP had to consult that Bible of bibliophiles, the encyclopedia.


MLP. Grammarian. Word nerd. “A rose by any other name” (stinks the same).

Ye already ken this one. A kenning is a metaphorical phrase or compound word used to name a person, place or thing (i.e., a noun) indirectly. If you search “kenning,” you’ll see most hits refer to Old English and Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as the epic poem "Beowulf," which is replete with kennings.

For example, instead of the sea, Beowulf’s mystery author writes “whale-road.” Instead of naming Grendel, he opts for the more dramatic "shepherd of evil."

It’s more entertaining when our hero defeats his monster in such colorful terms.

That brings to mind a kenning Harry Potter fans know well, the notorious “He who shall not be named,” a.k.a. Voldemort. The adventuring Hobbit has his “ring-giver” (king).

Kennings need not be epic (don’t get MLP started on misuse of “epic!" As if low prices rise to such heights. Epic sale my foot.). Folks at both ends of the political spectrum certainly have some, er, interesting names for the opposition.

No, I don’t mean the R-rated kind. One senator called his colleagues “squishes.” In the old days, unliked politicians were flapdoodles and snollygosters. Today’s flip-flopper should be all too familiar.

And if you wondered why this lowly scribe lapsed into Gaelic above, wonder no more. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, kenning is a derivative of the Old Norse kenna, “to perceive,” “to know” or “to name.” Likely related to the Scottish term “ken,” meaning know, as in “do ye ken yer kennings, lass?”

Kennings do have an ancient theme, but they aren’t all buried along with a sixth century story. A few of Beowulf’s might be fun to resurrect, such as battle-sweat (blood), sleep of the sword (death) and raven-harvest (corpses.) Lest we dwell in the gory, how about sky-candle (the sun)?

Modern English is also delightfully full of kennings used often enough to evade notice. We have bean counters and brown-nosers. Tree huggers, showstoppers, rugrats or the occasional ankle biters (little kids). Some kennings are such favorites they become primary descriptors, such as skyscraper, fender bender and headhunter.

A motor mouth might be chatting up a wallflower. I’m not a mind reader, but you may have heard of nervous Nellie. She’s arm candy.

The real fun comes in making up your own. It’s not unusual for families, coworkers or groups of friends to come up with their own kennings, both serious and silly, to describe someone’s attributes or habits (hopefully with affection rather than insult), otherwise called nicknames.

Our family sports a Baldy Waldy, Soul Sista and Knees-Over-Toes-Guy. Booya.

As long as it’s an expression substituting for a noun, it’s likely a kenning.

She’s out of inspiration, so Mrs. Language Person is going back to being a couch potato in front of the boob tube.

Shout out to bookworm Linda H. for today’s topic.

• • •

Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network whose creativity is drained. Share your colorful kennings at

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