Taken your life-house out for a walk lately?
Hard to resist if it’s a nice spring day with a bright heaven-candle in the sky.
Who knows? You might come upon a fresh masterpiece by a weaver-walker.
Life-house, heaven-candle and weaver-walker are examples of “kenning,” a practice in OId English in which a “figurative phrase or compound noun stands in for a familiar word.”[i] Such words were created by our linguistic ancestors between 500 and 1200 AD. Life-house is a word for “body,” heaven-candle for “sun,” and weaver-walker for a “spider”.
I think these words are delightful.
“Body” is a boring word — one definition is simply “the physical aspect of a person.”[ii] It doesn’t suggest what this “aspect” is really for. But life-house tells me so much more. This is the “house” I received when I was born and where “I” have resided all these years. It’s got some deferred maintenance issues, to be sure, and the older we get there are longer lists of things that need to cleaned, replaced, spruced up, covered up, and repainted, not to mention the possibility of discovering leaks as the pipes wear out. But there’s no down payment or mortgage to pay, no crazy real estate market to contend with – it’s a gift we’ve each been given. Our body is where we live – our one and only life-house.
“Sun” is defined by NASA as a “a hot ball of glowing gases at the heart of our solar system.”[iii] Possible digestive and political jokes aside, that’s obviously a scientifically accurate way to put it. But how much better a word is heaven-candle? That glowing orb that illuminates the day is like a generous candle that fills the sky with welcome light every day, without which we would bump into all kinds of things. Our heaven-candle never drips wax on the carpet and is expected to last for another two billion years without being replaced.
“Spider”: “An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen.”[iv] Yuck. “Unsegmented” sounds like somebody needs to make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon; “fused head and thorax” sounds like they’ve already had at least one such procedure. As to “rounded abdomen” – not sure what’s polite to say there. But as a description, it sounds depressing. How much better is weaver-walker? Doesn’t this word capture the miracle that this creature actually weaves while it walks? (In spite of all its surgeries?) I’ve known some great knitters in my time, but not one that can do that while strolling down the sidewalk, let alone suspended in mid-air generating its own thread.
These examples of “kenning” bring to mind words created when our children were young.
I remember watching Monday Night Football once and a daughter walked in and said, “What are you watching, Daddy? Catch-the-man?” Sounds more accurate than “football,” a word which should be permanently released to the custody of soccer.
Another time, one of the girls was very angry at someone and passionately declared, “They are a Dumbo-airplane!” Years later, I’m still pondering how to visualize that, but have always appreciated the emotional force behind the phrase.
Less poetic but similarly useful was a word we created, “birthday-cereal.” The origins can be traced to taking young kids to the market and walking down the cereal aisle. Attracted by the graphic images for Fruit Loops, Sugar Crisp, and Cap’n Crunch, they’d constantly beg me to buy one of these nutritional disasters. It was exasperating. One day I issued the following edict: they could have any cereal they wanted on their birthday, but on all other days, we would only buy cereal with less than 10 grams of sugar in it per serving. Not only did the haggling disappear, but it improved their literary and math competency as they became experts at silently rushing from box to box down the aisle, carefully examining the chart of nutritional data on every one like Sherlock Holmes.
So “catch-the-man,” “Dumbo-airplane,” and “birthday-cereal” were “kenning” creations in our family – I’m guessing every family has their own.
Let’s turn back one more time to savor a few more of these Old English gems.
After we’ve taken our life-house out for a walk under the heaven-candle while keeping an eye out for weaver-walkers, we could take a trip to gaze at the wave-path. You know, the sail-road? Ok, I’ll try one more word for it: the whale-way. Got it? The ocean! “The entire body of salt water that covers more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface”[v] is the dull way to put it. Wave-path, sail-road, and whale-way are words that help me see movement and life on the sea.
Finally, after our enlightened walk and time spent gazing from the shore, we should have a dust-viewing. That’s the Old English description for “visit to a grave.” After all, that’s where our life-houses will end up. But we’re not there yet. And right now, today, we have this divine opportunity to give thanks for the miracles of the heaven-candle, the weaver-walkers, and the endless creativity of our species. Let’s not let that opportunity dissolve into the dust just yet.
Image: “Spider Web Glowing in the Morning Sun,” Erica Maxine Price
Got some “kenning” examples of your own? Share them in the “Comments” section.
[i] “Here Be Dragons,” book review of The Wordhord, by Hana Videen, WSJ, May 9,2022
[v] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.
One reader, who is not able to post comments on this site, writes this:
I so enjoyed your sharing of, “Life-House.” Once again, since my comments are not possible to add on-line, I will share them with via email.
When my children were young they very disliked eating broccoli. We changed the name to “Green Trees” which they took pride in that they were eating a tree.
One of my granddaughters would only eat chicken when she was young. I told her that salmon was pink chicken, she ate it, and even likes it to this day, but embarrassed if I tell anybody she use to call it pink chicken.
In my classroom, I had a small picture frame with a label at the top, “HOT NEWS.” If a child came to school with a heavy or joyful heart from something that recently happened in his life, he/she would have troubling focusing on the work or verbal exchange during the day. Some examples would be, “my goldfish died last night, Grandma & Grandpa are coming today, Mom is going to have a baby, my dog/cat is in the hospital, etc” The advantage of the HOT NEWS is that once the child shared with his friends in the classroom and teacher he/she had the ability to have better focusing skills. The disadvantage is that the Hot News might be information being shared which was a family secret. Examples, Dad said mom is not with her girlfriends this week, but is having nose surgery. The child’s comment “I don’t know if she is getting a shorter or longer nose, but I will tell you later when she comes back home.” Now 25 children know the mom is having a nose job, which they will share with their mom, a top secret the Mom did not want to advertise.
One of my son’s said his teacher was as “dumb as a rock.”
I always told my children and students that they were responsible for answering their body telephone and no one else can. This might mean they need to use the restroom soon, they were not feeling well and needed to go home from school, etc.
To discount the different colors of people, I told my granddaughters and sons when they were young that how they looked was just God’s wrapping paper, but inside we are all the same, except how we share from our heart.
Thank you for letting me share with you some of my favorite examples of words with unique meaning.
I always appreciate and enjoy your words of wisdom and interpretations of life’s experiences.