Somewhere in my classics lit education in college I learned about kennings. I’m sure they were hidden somewhere in my high school AP English Lit text, but I didn’t really get them until my brain had matured a little bit and I realized that learning these terms mattered.
I just like the term itself—kenning. It makes me think of Canadian curling, like a game of words.
Now here’s my technical speal:
Early Norse and English bards used a technique called a kenning to both embellish their tales and to serve as a trick in memorizing lengthy epics in an oral tradition. Kennings broke long stories into chunks for easier memorization and served to cue the storyteller to shifts in the mood of the story. A kenning is a way of renaming something using more words, like two-word synonyms for the important nouns in a story. An example is like calling your socks ‘foot-sleeves’ or your car a ‘road-ship.’ The use of kennings might lend a wordy and old-fashioned feel to modern prose, but the spirit of the technique may also key readers into remembering significant moments or context in a series installment. (It’s also not lost. I just saw a performance of Peter and the Starcatcher at the Utah Shakespeare Festival that had kennings.) Think about starting every scene from a particular character’s POV with the same phrase—the phrase becomes part of that character’s personality.
But the real fun of kennings is playing with them. They can make the most absolutely mundane day sound epic. Let’s give it a try. I have a paragraph that describes a basic morning routine.
Christine turns off her alarm. She gets out of bed. She pees. She puts on her clothes and walks out to the kitchen and makes coffee. She watches the coffee drip into the pot and thinks about what to write today.
Now with a little bit of a creative nonfiction curve:
Christine picks up her cell phone and swipes the screen to turn off her alarm. She throws her arm over her face and takes a few moments in the darkness to turn on her brain. Throwing the covers off, she swings her legs over and slides off of the bed. She pees. After washing her hands, she fumbles through the bathroom. Where the hell are my clothes? She finds them laid out on the edge of the bathtub in a neat pile. Oh, yeah, I put them there last night. She slips her tee shirt halfway up and slides on her bra, then slips her Pink pants on over each leg and ties the string as she walks down the hall to the kitchen. The coffee pot is already on, hissing and dripping its dark nectar into the pot. Christine watches it, mesmerized, as she considers what to write that day.
Now for the epic kennings:
Christine, the mind-writer, picks up her message-oracle and swipes the screen to turn off her rooster-brayer. The great mind-writer throws her arm over her face and takes a few moments in the night-mask to turn on her story-thinker. Throwing the covers off, she swings her earth-walkers over and slides off of the repose-lounge. She fills the shiny waste-bowl with her body-gift. After washing her magic-makers, she fumbles through the water-room. Where the hell are my clothes? She finds them laid out on the edge of the bubble-maker in a neat pile. Oh, yeah, I put them there last night. She slips her torso-armor halfway up and slides on her melon-holster, then slips her Pink pants on over each earth-walker and ties the string as she walks down the hall to the food-temple. The caffeine-juice machine is already on, hissing and dripping its dark nectar into the pot. Christine mind-writer watches it, mesmerized, as she considers what to write that sun-time.
What kenning can you think of for a mundane object? Give it a try