The English language is a millennium and a half in the making, with roots to be found as far back as the fifth century. While the phrase “Old English” may evoke “thous” and “thines,” these seemingly old words are actually considered Modern English. Though true Old English might sound even more foreign to a twenty-first century ear, it’s really not so far from English as we know it today, with early iterations containing contemporary cognates (cwen and “queen,” for instance) and many of the same conventions that we still employ. One such convention is the use of figurative language, which occurs frequently in Old English classics. Beowulf, in particular, contains a slew of “kennings”—metaphorical phrases used in place of common nouns to be more descriptive or accurate.
These kennings—such as goldwine, or “gold-friend,” to mean “king”—transform overused words into interesting verbal tidbits. They might therefore serve as a source of inspiration for writers and thought leaders living in today’s world, in which we so often rummage through bargain bins of tarnished jargon and trite verbiage rather than stopping to think about what we actually want to convey. Such lackluster language muddles prose like linguistic red tape and can bog down thought leadership that might otherwise be brilliant.
Below are some Beowulfian kennings that elevate this epic piece and that can inspire those of us who live in the language of thought leadership.
Wordhord – “word-hoard”
“Him se yldesta / ondswarode, / werodes wisa, / wordhord onleac …” (Beowulf, lines 258a–9b)
“To him the stateliest spoke in answer; the warriors’ leader his word-hoard unlocked …”
Here, Beowulf, a master of well-timed words, addresses the coast guard of King Hrothgar, leader of the Danes. In order to justify his presence in Danish territory, Beowulf must first unlock his “word-hoard”—that is, his vocabulary. The writer paints a picture for us in which Beowulf dusts off the treasure chest of his mind to find the right tools to verbally destroy the upstart guard. This image gives further weight to a pivotal point in the story and accurately describes the internal action of the hero.
Hronrade – “whale-road”
“… weox under wolcnum / weorðmyndum þah / oð þæt him aeghwylc / þara ymbsittendra / ofer hronrade / hyran scolde / gomban gyldan …” (Beowulf, lines 8a–11a)
“… he waxed under the clouds, throve in honors, until to him each of the bordering tribes beyond the whale-road had to submit and yield tribute.”
This passage describes the exploits of Scyld Scefing, who was the mythical king who founded the Danish nation. He was such a successful king that even tribes beyond the “whale-road”—that is, the ocean—had to submit to him. The poet could have merely stated that tribes across the ocean paid tribute to this king. Instead, they chose a kenning that both vividly depicts and accurately conveys the information.
Banloca – “bone-enclosure”
“… ac he gefeng hraðe / forman siðe / slæpendne rinc, / slat unwearnum, / bat banlocan, / blod edrum dranc, / synsnædum swealh …” (Beowulf, lines 740a–3a)
“Straightaway he seized a sleeping warrior for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder, the bone-enclosure bit, drank blood in streams, swallowed him piecemeal …”
This gruesome section describes an attack by Grendel, the troll terrorizing the Danes, as he eats a Danish soldier. The poet writes that the monster bites the soldier’s “bone-enclosure”—his body. Here, the body is viewed through a more literal—and therefore more descriptive—lens, thereby molding a mundane word to fit the grisly context of being ripped apart. At the same time, the poet defamiliarizes a common concept to compound Grendel’s otherworldly monstrosity.
Heaþoswata – “battle-sweat”
“… þa þæt hildebil / forbarn brogdenmæl, / swa þæt blod gesprang, / hatost heaþoswata. / Ic þæt hilt þanan / feondum ætferede …” (Beowulf, lines 1666b–69a)
“That war-sword then all burned, bright blade, when the blood gushed over it, battle-sweat hot; but the hilt I brought back from my foes.”
The theme of battle and violence runs through a majority of Old English texts, from epics such as Beowulf to Christian texts about the Crucifixion. In this passage, Beowulf depicts his battle with Grendel’s mother, an even fiercer figure than Grendel himself, in which he slays the villain with a magic sword found in her chambers. He describes her “battle-sweat”—or rather, her blood—as it coats his weapon. Given how ubiquitous battle was in Anglo-Saxon literature, it’s no surprise that the author would choose to employ a kenning when referencing something as commonplace as blood, and they do so in a way that is figurative and also recasts the substance in a different, more specific light.
These days, descriptiveness and accuracy play second fiddle to conveyor-belt lingo. And though I’m not suggesting the insertion of kennings into the world of business—exciting as that may be—I do think thought leadership has a thing or two to learn from the inventive language of yore.