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Permanently Moved

Kennings & Orbit Words | 2114

S04E14

Reject the social media literalism that flattens ideas with a label or a name. Let’s dance around the edges of ideas to know them better.

Full show notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2021/04/10/301-2114-kennings-orbit-words/

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Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo

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Kennings & Orbit Words

Norse and Old English have a grammatical feature known as Kenning

The closest thing in modern English to Kenning is perhaps the portmanteau. Its literal meaning in french in ‘carry-cloak’. But translates from the English usages as Luggage. A Portmanteau inherently has an understanding that two words are packed inside.

Brony, Mockumentary, Sitcom, Pokémon, all come to mind.

As do shepherd (sheep herder) squander, (scatter and wander), podcast, (iPod + broadcast) or the humble cronut.

As a consequence of the enlightenment English began to favour literalism. To pin ideas to words like butterflies on a cork board and describe the whole world. There’s a reason there’s more than half a million words in the dictionary. English reaches for words with other words packed inside to describe something new by their combination. 

Sometimes these new words utterly fail to convey the actual meaning of the thing they try to describe. 

How about the word defeated the moment it was invented: Brexit.

Metaphor tries to correct for this “Her eyes were glistening jewels” as does analogy. But both portmanteau and metaphor fail in my estimate to produce new meaning.

Kenning on the other hand is a figure of speech or ambage of two words that circle around an idea. Using multiple words rather than envoking it or describing it directly. 

Or to quote Wikipedia on the matter: A Kenning is a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun.

Kennings create meaning, and require thoughtful interpretation in a way that is almost unthinkable in day to day english. Or on social media.

For example the word hronrad as found in Beowulf.

Hron means “whale.” Rad means “a road,” or “a path.” Put them together, … and you get hronrad, or “whale-road,” which means “the sea.” 

The ocean is not an empty space, hronrad says — it belongs to the whale. Human beings crisscross it on our adventures, but when we do it, we are trespassing on a very large mystery.

Letter of Recommendation: Old English – NYT

Some kennings have survived through time. We use them without thinking. The ideas contained within their orbits are fixed in culture. So we require little to no work to decipher their meaning. A home being a Dwelling Place, or Night Owl describing someone who stays up late.

New Kennings do still crop up every now and then. For example a Cancer Stick isn’t a metaphor it’s two words in orbit of an idea. As is Couch Potato, Gas Guzzler, or Land Line.

Using the words Land + Line to refer to the telephone socket is wonderful. Two words in an elegant orbit that produce a conceptual place holder. Rather than a description.

It is a shame that modern kennings are so simple.

Some old Kennings hold complex concepts and powerful meaning inside. For example a “weather of weapons” means a war. Or for the Game of Thrones Fans “A Storm of Swords” is an Anglo Saxon Kenning for Battle.

You think there metaphors but they aren’t – they’re kennings.

The coherence of the words in orbit of one another produce more meaning by their dance than using a single one. I have never been a war, or a battle. But Weather of Weapons gives me a better emotional understanding of what it might be like, than the single word alone.

Some of you are probably thinking of the Twisted Language of the Yaminahua Shamen of Peru. Speaking to Anthropologist Graham Townsley one said.

“twisted language brings me close but not too close – with normal words I would crash into things – with twisted ones I circle around them – I can see them clearly. ”

According to Townsley it is a “deliberately constructed in an elliptical and multi-referential fashion so as to mirror the refractory nature of the beings who are their objects.” 

Townsley’s use of the word elliptical is what prompted this entire show.I’ve been thinking about ideas with orbits and edges a lot.

When I was studying philosophy at University I had a lecturer named Arthur Gibson. 

He was a big fan of Red Wine, Wittgenstein and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. A book full of digressions, interruptions and stories-within-stories. 

In one of our tutorials the conversation had been going round and around. About literally everything other than the subject of the we were supposed to be studying. With a growing detectable frustration from the more direct students in the room. They felt we were wasting time. 

But Arthur explained by discussing everything and anything ‘around’ the topic; we had out of the corner of our eyes begun to glimpse the nature of the subject in question.

The subject had very much been at hand. It had dominated the entire topic of our conversation by its omission. A giant hole in the conversation, the blind men touching the elephant in the room as it were. 

By not addressing the subject directly we had collectively found its edges and its gravity. 

The gravity of a kenning indicates the intensity of the concept it tries to contain. 

Orbits, gyroscopes, gyers bring to mind angular velocity that acrete around a star or an idea.

We need more kennings. It’s a far better way of generating understanding. 

Reject the social media literalism that flattens ideas with a label or a name. 

Let’s dance around the edges of ideas to know them better.


The script above is the original script. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints and editing.

About Author

Jay Springett is a Solarpunk, and consultant strategist, currently specialising in the distributed web, metaverse, and world running. He is currently writing his first public book: Land as Platform.

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