For those who read the poetic epic "Beowulf" in excerpts or in its entirety, you'll remember the many kennings in the text. According to the British Library, a third of "Beowulf" is kennings.

Kennings are types of figurative and metaphorical compound terms created using mixed imagery, with etymology in Old English, Old Norse and German. Bone-house (body) and whale-road (ocean) are two of the most famous kennings, both from "Beowulf."

But kennings are not reserved for ancient language and literature. Contemporary English has its share of kennings, among them: ankle-biter (young child), motor mouth (an incessant talker), pigskin (football) and fender bender (insignificant car accident).

Be careful: Although an Internet search for "kennings examples" identifies thousands of results, you'll find that many examples, in fact, are not accurate. They do not meet the "mixed imagery, figurative or metaphorical language" criteria. See, for example, these poems characterized as kennings that aren't kennings at all.

In this vocabulary, imaginative writing and critical thinking activity designed for intermediate and advanced students, you will introduce kennings to your students and challenge them to create, illustrate and present their own, after which you'll watch a video to listen for and identify kennings.


1. Begin with the knowledge in the room: Draw a brainstorm web (mind map) on the board or overhead, and in the middle, write the kenning "whale-road." Ask students what they think it means and write their answers extending from the web.

2. Discuss their answers: How did they arrive at their answers?

3. Try another kenning, perhaps another ancient but accessible one (sky-candle=sun; winter spear=icicle; sky's black cloak=nightfall). Students may need to consult their dictionaries for some words (spear, cloak). Repeat Step 2.

4. Try a contemporary kenning, and repeat Step 2.

5. Write the word "kenning" on the board or overhead and tell students they have been looking at examples of kennings. Ask students if they can construct a definition for "kenning."

6. Discuss the definitions and ask students how they arrived at their definitions.

7. Provide the dictionary definition; compare it to the students' definitions.

8. Examine contemporary kennings. Discuss what they are, what they mean and whether they are offensive (four-eyes; brown-noser; bookworm). See some modern examples:

9. Ask students to write their own kenning. To begin, you can offer some accessible topics:

  • Student
  • Teacher
  • Mother
  • Father
  • Sister
  • Brother
  • Cat
  • Dog
  • Flower

10. Have students illustrate their work.

11. Have students present their work to the class; they should explain the rationale for their kenning.

12. Have students suggest topics for the class to use and/or have students choose individual topics. Then, repeat Steps 9 and 10.

13. Prior to a class screening of the video (see Step 13), watch the video yourself and identify the kennings. Present the kennings to your students: Write them on the board and explain their meaning. Tell students they will be listening for the kennings in a video.

14. Screen the 26-minute animated video "Beowulf" below and ask students to listen for kennings (whale-road is one of them) and to make a list of the ones they find. You can also assign this as homework so students can listen at their own pace. You can then discuss their findings and/or discuss the story.

15. Have students write sentences or paragraphs that include their kennings. Students can work individually or in pairs or small groups to construct sentences and paragraphs, which may be particularly challenging given that their kennings may not be obliviously related.

Additional resources

  • (Includes a story synopsis)
  • (An extraordinarily condensed — 4:19 — animated version that is good for students who may benefit from an easy supplement to the longer video. It eliminates much of what is included in the longer video, and it has no spoken dialogue. All language is written in language bubbles; there is one kenning).