From couch-potato to tree-huggers: 35 kennings you need to know

A kenning (the term comes from Old Norse poetry) employs figurative language to represent the object

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 22 Dec 2022, 10:03 PM

Among the little-known terms of English grammar is the kenning, a stylistic device that involves a two-word compound phrase to describe something metaphorically. A kenning (the term comes from Old Norse poetry) employs figurative language to represent the object, such as using the phrase “couch-potato” for someone who is lazy and often parked in front of the TV, or referring to a crawling baby as an “ankle-biter”. Neither may be very poetic, but each employs a metaphor that makes it more interesting than the simple regular word or term for the person or item you want to describe.

Thus “arm-candy” is a more expressive way of referring to a date who looks good and is brought to events to impress others; “brown-noser” is more colourful than “sycophant”. A car that consumes a lot of petrol is a “gas-guzzler” (since the American term for vehicle fuel is “gasoline”). “Head-hunters” are a common expression, no longer for cannibal tribes but for executives whose job is to search for and identify high-level recruits for companies. Television pundits are “talking-heads”, and environmentalists are often called “tree-huggers”, from a practice by India’s Chipko Andolan movement that tried to save trees in the Himalayan forests from being cut down by having protestors hug them when the loggers came. (Not to be confused with a “tree swinger”, who is merely a monkey.)

Whereas the literal term for each object or person being described is usually unremarkable, the “kenning”, by compressing a metaphorical expression, creates associations that make the speaker or writer sound more interesting. Describing a cigarette as a “cancer-stick”, an accountant as a “bean-counter” and a bureaucrat as a “pencil-pusher” conveys your disapproval of or disrespect for the item described, as well as being more vivid than the standard term. Something no one wants to touch is a “hot potato”; someone who talks too much or too fast is a “motor-mouth”; and a person who seems to know what you’re thinking is a “mind-reader”.

Kennings were important in the literature of the Norsemen, and so the classic examples refer to the terms that were important to them. For example, there are many different kennings for ships, like “wave-swine” and “sea-steed”, since the Vikings were seafaring warriors. Kennings added a poetic dimension to the banal terms they needed to employ frequently, especially martial ones such as “battle-metal” for weapons, “battle-sweat” and “slaughter-dew” for blood, or “feeding the eagle” for killing enemies. The inhospitable frozen wastes that were home for the Vikings lent themselves to many kennings as well, from “feather’s fall” for snow and “Northern kiss” (and “winter’s blade”) for a cold wind, to “Thor’s laughter” for thunder and “white death” for someone killed by an avalanche.

Most of these, of course, are not employed today. But kennings can be a useful metaphorical device in writing, helping an author make imaginative connections between otherwise unrelated ideas. Yet those modern authors who have tried to invent kennings of their own in works of literature have rarely produced phrases that stood the test of time. John Steinbeck in his 1950 novella Burning Bright created kennings such as “wife-loss” and “friend-right,” neither of which caught on.

Today’s common kennings are more prosaic, but that’s why they work. Some pass into the language; everyone knows that a bookworm is someone who reads a great deal or even excessively, but how many realise the term began as a kenning, “book-worm”, before being used so commonly that it shed its hyphen? Similarly, in discussing American politics, the term “First Lady” is widely understood to mean the wife of the president — it too was a kenning, combining her gender (the assumption was the President was inevitably male) with her importance (she places above every other woman). The election of female governors and now a Vice-President has led to the creation of “First Gentleman”. The US is fertile territory for kennings: there, a “fender-bender” is a minor car accident, a “rugrat” (“rug” is the preferred American word for a carpet) is a toddler or crawling baby, a dog is a “postman-chaser”, a “show-stopper” is a performer receiving a standing ovation, a reliable work of reference is a “myth-buster”, and a lawyer ready to profit from accidents by filing lawsuits is an “ambulance-chaser”. Can you think of some more yourself?

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