anthimeria, kenning, literary devices, new words, nouns and verbs to adjectives, nouns to verbs, oxymoron, Robert Frost, verbs to nouns, Word Play, wordplay
Hello everyone! We have a interesting and playful poetry device which we can incorporate in our poetry writing – word play.
Word play, also written as wordplay, word-play, or a play on words, is when a writer experiments with the sound, meaning, and/or construction of words to produce new and interesting meanings. In other words, the writer is twisting language to say something unexpected, with the intent of entertaining or provoking the reader.
Wordplay definition: Experimentation with the sounds, definitions, and/or constructions of words to produce new and interesting meanings.
Fly, Dragon Fly by Bjorn Rudberg
O, dragon-sun, the fear-
ful father, a thawer of snow,
in March you blind me awake
from the famines of frost.
O, moon-son, spiller of silver,
master of shadows, silent
and cold, advise me how
I may fly, with only my will,
bereaved of my wings.
O, earth, obscurer of spirits,
still frozen you keep, soil-bound
your worms, waiting for warmth,
while deep in your waters, dragon-
fly nymphs fatten for flight.
EXAMPLES OF A PLAY ON WORDS: 3 LITERARY DEVICES
Word play isn’t just a way to have fun with language, it’s also a means of creating new and surprising meanings. By experimenting with the possibilities of sound and meaning, writers can create new ideas that traditional language fails to encompass.
Let’s see word play in action. The following examples of a play on words all come from published works of literature.
1. WORD PLAY EXAMPLES: ANTHIMERIA
Anthimeria is a type of word play in which a word is employed using a different part of speech than what is typically associated with that word. (For reference, the parts of speech are: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, articles, interjections, conjunctions, and prepositions.)
Most commonly, a writer using anthimeria will make a verb a noun (nominalization), or make a noun a verb (verbification). It would be much harder to employ this device using other parts of speech: using an adjective as a pronoun, for example, would be difficult to read, even for the reader familiar with anthimeria.
Here are some word play examples using anthimeria:
NOUNS TO VERBS
The thunder would not peace at my bidding.
—From King Lear, (IV, vi.) by Shakespeare
The word “peace” is being used as a verb, meaning “to calm down.” Many anthimeria examples come to us from Shakespare, in part because of his genius with language, and in part because he needed to use certain words that would preserve the meter of his verse.
“I’ll unhair thy head.”
—From Antony and Cleopatra (II, v.) by Shakespeare
Of course, “unhair” isn’t a word at all. But, it’s using “hair” as a verb, and then using the opposite of that verb, to express scalping someone’s hair off.
Up from my cabin, My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
—From Hamlet, (V, ii.) by Shakespeare
Shakespeare is using “scarf” as a verb, meaning “to wrap around.” Nowadays, the use of “scarf” as a verb is recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, but at the time, this was a very new usage of the word.
VERBS TO NOUNS
It’s difficult to find examples of nominalization in literature, mostly because it’s not a wise decision in terms of writing style. Verbs are the strongest parts of speech: they provide the action of your sentences, and can also provide necessary description and characterization in far fewer words than nouns and adjectives can. Using a verb as a noun only hampers the power of that verb.
Nonetheless, we use verbs as nouns all the time in everyday conversation. If you “hashtag” something on social media, you’re using the noun hashtag as a verb. Or, if you “need a good drink,” you’re noun-ing the verb “drink.” Often, nouns become acceptable dictionary entries for verbs because of the repeated use of nominalizations in everyday speech.
NOUNS AND VERBS TO ADJECTIVES
“The parishioners about here,” continued Mrs. Day, not looking at any living being, but snatching up the brown delf tea-things, “are the laziest, gossipest, poachest, jailest set of any ever I came among.”
—From Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
The words “gossipest, poachest, jailest” might seem silly or immature. But, they’re fun and striking uses of language, and they help characterize Mrs. Day through dialogue.
“I’ll get you, my pretty.”
—From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
By using the adjective “pretty” as a noun, the witch’s use of anthimeria in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz strikes a chilling note: it’s both pejorative and suggests that the witch could own Dorothy’s beauty.
Anthimeria isn’t just a form of language play, it’s also a means of forging neologisms, which eventually enter the English lexicon. Many words began as anthimerias. For example, the word “typing” used to be a new word, as people didn’t “employ type” until the invention of typing devices, like typewriters. The word “ceiling” comes from an antiquated word “ceil,” meaning sky: “ceiling” means to cover over something, and that verb eventually became the noun we use today.
2. WORD PLAY EXAMPLES: KENNING
The kenning is a type of metaphor that was popular among medieval poets. It is a phrase, usually two nouns, that describes something figuratively, often using words only somewhat related to the object being described.
If you’ve read Beowulf, you’ve seen the kenning in action—and you know that, in translation, some kennings are easier understood than others. For example, the ocean is often described as the “whale path,” which makes sense. But a dragon is described as a “mound keeper,” and if you don’t know that dragons in literature tend to hoard piles of gold, it might be harder to understand this kenning.
A kenning is constructed with a “base word” and a “determinant.” The base word has a metaphoric relationship with the object being described, and the determinant modifies the base word. So, in the kenning “whale path,” the “path” is the base word, as it’s a metaphor for the sea. “Whale” acts as a determinant, cluing the reader towards the water.
The kenning is a play on words because it uses marginally related nouns to describe things in new and exciting language. Here are a few examples:
KENNING IN Beowulf
At some point in the text of Beowulf, the following kennings occur:
Battle shirt — armor
Battle sweat — blood
Earth hall — burial mound
Helmet bearer — warrior
Raven harvest — corpse
Ring giver — king
Sail road — the sea
Sea cloth — sail
Sky candle — the sun
Sword sleep — death
Don’t be too surprised by all of the references to fighting and death. Most of Beowulf is a series of battles, and given that the story developed across centuries of Old English, much of the epic poem explores God, glory, and victory.
KENNING ELSEWHERE IN LITERATURE
The majority of kennings come from Old English poetry, though some contemporary poets also employ the device in their work. Here are a few more kenning word play examples.
So the earth-stepper spoke, mindful of hardships,
of fierce slaughter, the fall of kin:
Oft must I, alone, the hour before dawn
lament my care. Among the living
none now remains to whom I dare
my inmost thought clearly reveal.
I know it for truth: it is in a warrior
noble strength to bind fast his spirit,
guard his wealth-chamber, think what he will.
—”The Wanderer” (Anonymous)
“The Wanderer” is a poem anonymously written and preserved in a codex called The Exeter Book, a manuscript from the late 900s. It contains approximately ⅙ of the Old English poetry we know about today. In this poem, an “earth-stepper” is a person, and a “wealth-chamber” is the wanderer’s mind or heart—wherever it is that he stores his immaterial virtues.
No, they’re sapped and now-swept as my sea-wolf’s love-cry.
—from “Cuil Cliffs” by Ian Crockatt
Ian Crockatt is a contemporary poet and translator from Scotland, and his work with Old Norse poetry certainly influences his own poems. “Sea wolf” is a kenning for “sailor,” and a “love cry” is a love poem.
There is a singer everyone has heard,Loud, a mid-summer and a
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
—“The Oven Bird” by Robert Frost
In this Frost sonnet, the speaker employs the kenning “petal-fall” to describe the autumn. The full text of the poem has been included, not for any particular reason, other than it’s simply a lovely, striking poem.
3. WORD PLAY EXAMPLES: OXYMORON
An oxymoron is a self-contradictory phrase. It is usually just two words long, with each word’s definition contrasting the other one’s, despite the apparent meaning of the words themselves. It is a play on words because opposing meanings are juxtaposed to form a new, seemingly-impossible idea.
A common example of this is the phrase “virtual reality.” Well, if it’s virtual, then it isn’t reality, just a simulation of a new reality. Nonetheless, we employ those words together all the time, and in fact, the juxtaposition of these incompatible terms creates a new, interesting meaning.
Oxymorons occur all the time in everyday speech. “Same difference,” “Only option,” “live recording,” and even the genre “magical realism.” In any of these examples, a new meaning forms from the placement of these incongruous words.
Here are a few examples from literature:
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
—Romeo and Juliet (II; ii), by Shakespeare
“No light; but rather darkness visible”
—Paradise Lost by John Milton
“Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.”
—“The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson
Note: an oxymoron is not self-negating, but self-contradictory. The use of opposing words should mean that each word cancels the other out, but in a good oxymoron, a new meaning is produced amidst the contradictions. So, you can’t just put two opposing words together: writing “the healthy sick man,” for example, doesn’t mean anything, unless maybe it’s placed into a very specific context. An oxymoron should produce new meaning on its own.
Source: Word Play: Examples of Play on Words by Sean Glatch
Poets, are you ready to sword-play and spook-slay us with your poetry? We will delightfully read your garden salad of words by linking up with Mr. Linky.
Hi everyone! I hope you have fun with this prompt. We have ice wine, coffee and tea with apple and blueberry pie and chocolate cake. Enjoy!
Björn Rudberg (brudberg) said:
I would have loved to participate- but I have been downtown eating and I will need to get to sleep when I get home. Nice of you to incorporate my poem with kenning. As for verbing I remember using firework and butterfly (or butterflew) in poems a long time ago.
Hi Bjorn. Hope the meeting will go well. Butterflew is a clever word play.
Hi Grace! It does sound fun. I would love an espresso with a slice of apple and blueberry pie as I sharpen my paper smearer.
Hi Punam! Looking forward to your poem. Here’s an espresso with a slice of the pie.
My entry was prompted by blackbird song.
Hi Peter! I commented that your poem was for another MTB prompt. If you can write another poem for this prompt, it is appreciated. Thanks.
My entry is meant for this prompt.
Hi Peter! Can you please post the poem using the techniques used in this MTB prompt? Thank you.
Hi Grace and all. I hope my poem meets the prompt.
I’d love a cup of black coffee and a small slice of blueberry pie.
Hi Merril. Here’s a cup of black coffee and blueberry pie for you. Love your migration poem!
Thank you, Grace. And thank you for the prompt!
that was perfectly rotten to get my head around.
thanks for the challenge
You are very welcome Rog.
The Inkwell (Pankaj Kumar) said:
Here is my submission.
Hi Pankaj. Adding this to Mr Linky is fine. Thanks.
Christine Bolton, Poetry for Healing said:
This was fun Grace. Not sure if I hit the mark, but I enjoyed writing something I wouldn’t normally attempt ☺️
Hi Christine. Always fun to stretch the poetic imagination. Thanks for joining in.
Christine Bolton, Poetry for Healing said:
Thanks Grace ☺️
little learner said:
Oh, Grace, I’ve long been away (nursing an ill mum) and, just returned, promised myself I’d leap back into the wild-word-world. How exciting to be challenged with such serious playfulness! It’s nearly two in the ante meridiem (frightful jet lag) so I’ll set ink to parchment after a forced few hours of shut-eye. (Perhaps I’ll dream up some anthimeria.) I cannot wait. I’ll need some stiff coffee, please and thank you!
Hello, its been a while but hoping all is well with you. Looking forward to what will flow out of your pen or dreams. Stiff coffee in the house for you.
Thank you for hosting. Phew!! this was a challenging prompt. I’m unsure if I did justice to it, but it’s a fine learning experience on word play, thanks for that. 🙂
You are very welcome. That is the fun side of learning.
Thank you for the challenge to engage with word play Bjorn, and the wonderful trove of learning.
You are very welcome. Looking forward to reading your poem.