Kenning

If something is beyond your ken, it is beyond your knowledge or understanding. The word ken only really appears in this phrase, but in some dialects of English in northern England, and in Scots and Scottish English, ken is more commonly used.

Ken

In English ken means to know, perceive, understand; knowledge, perception or sight. It comes from the Middle English kennen (to make known, tell, teach, proclaim, annouce, reveal), from the Old English cennan (to make known, declare, acknowledge), from cunnan (to become acquainted with, to know), from the Proto-West Germanic *kannijan (to know, to be aware of), from the Proto-Germanic *kannijaną (to make known), from *kunnaną (to be able), from the Proto-Indo-European *ǵn̥néh₃ti (to know, recognize) from *ǵneh₃- (to know) [source].

Some related words include:

  • beken = to make known, reveal, deliver, commit
  • foreken = to perceive, realise ahead of time, foreknow, preconceive
  • kenning = sight, view, a distant view at sea; range r extent of vision (esp. at sea), a small portion, as little as one can discrimminate or recognize
  • misken = to mistake one for another, fail to know, misunderstand, ignore, disregard, neglect
  • outken = to surpass or exceed in knowledge

These are no longer used, rarely used, or only used in some dialects of English.

Kenning also means “A metaphorical compound or phrase, used especially in Germanic poetry (Old English or Old Norse) whereby a simple thing is described in an allusive way.” It was borrowed from Old Norse [source].

Some examples of kenning in Old Norse and Old English include:

  • báru fákr (wave’s horse) = ship
  • gjálfr-marr (sea-steed) = ship
  • heofon-candel (sky-candle) = sun
  • grennir gunn-más (feeder of ravens) = warrior
  • winter-ġewǣde (winter-raiment) = snow
  • hilde-leoma (battle light) = sword
  • seġl-rād (sail-road) = sea
  • hwæl-weġ (whale-way) = sea
  • heofon-candel (sky-candle) = sun
  • ban-hus (bone-house) = body

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenning, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_kennings, https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/cb45/kennings

There are cognates in other Germanic languages, including:

  • ken = to know (a person, a thing), be acquainted with in Afrikaans
  • kende = to know (be acquainted or familiar with) in Danish
  • kjenne = to know (be acquainted or familiar with), to feel or sense in Norwegian
  • känna = to feel or sense, or to know (a person) in Swedish
  • kennen = to know (a thing), be acquainted with in Dutch
  • kennen = to know, be acquainted with, be familiar with in German

In Scots ken means “To know, be aware of, apprehend, learn (a fact)”, and comes from the same roots as the English word [source]. Some related words include:

  • ken(n)ing = imparting, teaching, recognition, indentification, knowing
  • kenable = obvious, easily recognisable
  • kenmark = a distinguishing mark, mark of owenership on an animal, brand
  • kennage = knowledge, information
  • kenspeckle = easily recognisable, conspicuous, of familiar appearance

One thought on “Kenning

  1. It also famously appears as part of the lyric in a song : “D’ye ken John Peel?” This refers to a huntsman (1776 – 1854) from the English Lake District, rather than to the 20th century disc jockey of the same name.

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