Intersections: The Language of Disguise, Part 1


As Elizabeth from The Office once wisely observed, “Secret secrets are no fun. Secret secrets hurt someone.” Thank you, Elizabeth.

But who hasn’t, at least once, ridding themselves of the burden of being a secret’s sole owner, whispered that secret to a confidant safely away from prying ears?

Now imagine what it would be like if you could give away that secret in mixed company, dividing your friends like a clever joke by those who get it and those who do not… In today’s blog post, we will discuss two literary devices that allow you this luxury: euphemism and kenning.

Seeing a man about a dog

Euphemism, a literary device that replaces something’s actual name with a more polite label, relies on the disguise of ho-hum activities for its inclusion to everyday conversation. Euphemisms get a bad rep because of their association with inappropriate or even disturbing ideas and acts, from bodily functions to death.

But euphemisms actually save us from having to explicitly name unsavory things and therefore allow us to bring up inappropriate ideas without getting our hands dirty (plus, there’s always the option of acting like you literally meant what you said and shaming your audience for their gutter-dwelling brains).

Euphemisms live and die based on the recognition of similarities between two seemingly unrelated things, but personal knowledge of the euphemism’s creator can play a role as well. If you announce your intention to take “the big sleep,” one person might ask you for thread-count recommendations, while others will put together the following pieces:

you woke up half an hour ago + you just had a coffee + your bed collapsed this morning

The rest of this euphemism depends on commonalities between your constant, sleep, and the unsavory concept, death: similar appearance (closed eyes, motionless), the act of entering a new ‘world’ (either of dreams or of the afterlife), and the word “big,” implying long-lasting and over-powering effects.

Norse code

Originating in Old Norse, a language spoken in Scandinavia in the 9th to 13th century, a kenning is a literary device that re-labels and re-imagines common ideas and customs from an ancient civilization that people breathing today might not recognize.

A king could have been referred to as “a man of rings” because of kings’ habits of giving rings as tokens of appreciation to their followers, but while we all know what a king is, few of us in North America have met a king, and it isn’t as if they ride among us giving out jewelry…sadly.

Kennings abandon formal labels and (in their simplest form) pick two words (a base and a modifier)  and either compound those words or turn them into a genitive phrase, with one (new) noun as the base and the second noun modifying that base.

For example, the noun “ocean” has a few different kennings that use different formats, such as the compound word “whale-road” and the genitive phrase “whale’s way.”

Kennings can be cryptic. The idea of a road for a whale is fairly unusual, so while you must remember to not take the words literally, there’s a little more imagination involved when translating a concept you’ve never physically seen, and a little more work when thinking about how two seemingly unrelated words interact to express something new.

Whales do travel, which is what roads allow. However, whales are hardly capable of moving on land, where roads are. Your idea of these two words must therefore broaden.

“Road” can be understood more generally as “a path by which things move from one place to another,” a definition that allows us to pair “road” with “whale” in a way that makes sense, since whales do move from one place to another. And where do they do this? The ocean!

On the SAT…

You are most likely to encounter euphemisms on the SAT Literature Subject Test. While a kenning sighting on the SAT or SAT II is rare, it’s important to keep your sleuthing skills sharp.

Keeping in mind that what a character or narrator says is not always literal will deepen your understanding of not only a reading passage’s plot, but also provide clues about a character’s motives and disposition.

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