What are kennings?

Kennings are a type of metaphorical language in which two nouns combine to evoke a third noun. Kennings are common in Old Norse and Old English poetry, but I’ve found while translating Chinese literature that the Chinese language is prone to creating kennings as well.

Even if you don’t know the term “kenning,” you’ve no doubt run across the cringe-worthy ones that give erotica a bad rap. You know… “meat curtains,” “man sausage,” whatever euphemism a writer has come up with because they’re too embarrassed to say “labia” or “penis.” For better or for worse, kennings have survived into modern erotica—and, by extension, into modern literature.

Part of writing effective, emotionally resonant stories is the practice of letting go of the shame and embarrassment that may arise while you work. The bounds of a story are where you can allow your imagination to run wild, free from arbitrary restraints that would limit your ideas.

So, don’t be embarrassed to say “bad words.” Part of what makes an erotic piece hot, after all, is the way it flouts taboos and exposes what we hide from polite company. Saying forbidden words and concepts, whether through dialogue or metaphor, is also what drives the rest of genre fiction—if not all fiction.

Within the scope of your story, use your words to their maximum potential. Use euphemisms only for emotionally resonant moments, where they work best. Save the kennings for the extended metaphors.

In my own work, I have taken the idea of kennings one step further. The most paradigmatic examples of kennings are of two nouns creating a new noun. However, you can also have two nouns, a noun and an adjective (both possibilities encompassed by “the wine-dark sea”), and two adjectives form an adjectival phrase:

  • Example 1: “Tears along her stretch marks, seeps liquefying fat yellow-slick over her limbs, which distort like quavering Jell-O. […] She’s a pebble-skinned mass, cysts like salmon roe spotting her body.” —Llena del alma mía (emphasis added)

Usually, kennings and compounds appear with hyphens, but they’re still legible as kennings without them.

You can coin as many phrases as you need to keep your extended metaphor going. The goal isn’t to get rid of adjectives or adverbs, but to find compact, emotionally resonant descriptions while trimming off redundant or excessive prose.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Look for kennings as you read fiction and poetry.
  2. Pick an adjective.
    1. Set a timer for 60 seconds.
    2. Use that time to create as many kennings approximating the meaning of the adjective as you can.
  3. Pick a noun.
    1. Set a timer for 60 seconds.
    2. Use that time to create as many kennings as you can for that noun.
    3. If you’re stuck, try imagining different worlds or situations where someone might need to create a new word to express such a concept.
      • For example, the Chinese term for “computer” is 電腦 diànnǎo ‘electric brain.’