Nov 19 2009 6:20pm

Noodles, self-help groups and airplane parts: things to avoid when making up fantasy names

Emmet’s reading Acacia by this year’s John W. Campbell Award winner David Anthony Durham. It is labeled book one of “War with the Mein.” This led me to pondering that common pitfall of making up fantasy names: hitting on something that already means something else, and is thus inadvertently funny. “Mein” to me means “noodles” as in “chow mein” and “lo mein.” I don’t know if it’s authentic Chinese or Western restaurant Chinese. Because I’m aware it means noodles, I find it hard to take it entirely seriously as the name of an evil enemy. Next, bring on “the war with the linguini!” and “the war with the tortellini!” Fantasy names create atmosphere, and this is not the atmosphere you want unless you’re Robert Asprin.

While it’s easy to laugh at, it can be hard to avoid. Where are writers going to find a four letter word that doesn’t mean something in some language? If you’re going for pronounceable, probably there isn’t anything. (And nobody wants them called Gfnp, because for one thing the readers might want to talk about them, and for another what if the book’s really successful and they do an audio version?) The best that’s possible is to avoid things that have immediate risibility to English speaking readers. I mean I know “Acacia” is a plant but hearing it as the name doesn’t make me giggle. I asked Emmet if there were any other funny names in the book, and he told me that the founder of the royal line is called Edifus.

Durham’s names are far from the worst example of this I can think of, though they are the most recent. Terry Brooks has a wizard called Allanon. Al-Anon is the name of the organization that Alcoholics Anonymous has set up for the friends and families of alcoholics. If you google “allanon” you get a whole lot of hits for Al-Anon. But how was Brooks to know? The Sword of Shannara was written before Google, and while it was twenty years after Al-Anon was founded, if Mr. Brooks didn’t know anyone with an alcoholic problem he might well never have heard of it. I think this is forgivable. Still, while the books have been wildly successful, there have also been a lot of sniggers.

And then there’s Aileron, the young king of Fionavar in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. His father’s called Aillel, which is an actual Irish name, and Aileron sounds as if it easily could be an Irish name in the same tradition—but in fact it’s a part of an airplane. This didn’t need Google, a dictionary check would have caught it. The Fionavar books are excellent, beautifully written, a serious high fantasy series that does a whole lot of things right. I’ve always loved them—but I’ve always winced at Aileron. It could have been fixed so easily by naming him Aileran, if Kay or anyone at any stage at the publisher had been aware or wanted to fix it. Kay says the name’s pronounced Ah-LEER-on, and he never thought anyone would have a problem with it.

Even Tolkien, whose names are generally wonderful, had the occasional slip up. The elven city of Gondolin stands on a hill called Tuna. (What?) And I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve never read Jack Vance because the title Servants of the Wankh was a standing joke among British fans.

I have done this myself, incidentally. I wrote a story that needed a standard fantasy kingdom name, and I called it Porphyria. I liked the way it meant purple, I thought it had an imperial feel. I liked the way it sounded slightly pompous and standard—it was just what I wanted. Fortunately, before the story was published one of my first readers pointed out that it was the name of a disease. It was too late to find something else that felt right, but I quickly changed it to Porphylia. Thank you again, Nancy Lebovitz, for saving me from looking like an idiot.

So, what’s the solution? Writers should google the names for characters and places before they get too attached to them. Yes, this means googling lots of names, in the cases of some books lots and lots, but it’s worth it—it’s better to spend a whole afternoon discovering whether your characters’ names are noodles, self-help groups and airplane parts than to have people giggling at them forever once it’s too late to change.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

piaw na
1. piaw
Uh... The proper spelling for noodles is "Mian". I've seen it written as "Mien", but "Mein" doesn't even come close.
Stephen W
2. Xelgaex
Mein tripped the German words switch for me, rather than the noodles switch, which is much more in keeping with the people being described. I actually didn't think of the noodles thing until you mentioned it. That probably would have been distracting though.

piaw @ #1

Jo was right to be uncertain of the word's origin. Lo mein and chow mein are indeed examples of "restaurant Chinese." Mian is a correct transliteration from Mandarin. Going by wikipedia (dangerous I know, but it's just a blog comment), chow mein comes from Taishanese and lo mein comes from Cantonese, with neither one being a particularly faithful transliteration. It is however the way that it is spelled on menus, packaging, and the like in the US (&UK?), at least for the most part.
Kathleen J
3. tanaudel
This reminds me of a poem I can't find anywhere - a sonnet full of place names which sounded lovely but were all words with other meanings. I think it began "Upon the distant heights of fair Linoleum..."
Wesley Osam
4. Wesley
The movie Lady in the Water is about a conflict between Narfs and Scrunts. I've never seen it because I'm sure I would be laughing too hard at the dialogue to follow the plot.
gabor cs.
5. whoisnot
Pick names that resemble real words on purpose, strongly but not 100%, guiding your readers' associations?

Just a single example: Angua, from Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - remember what kind of character she is? Her special... traits? If not (or if you haven't encountered her yet), can you guess? :]
Teka Lynn
6. Teka Lynn
I'm so glad I'm not the only Tolkien reader who chokes on Túna.
Teka Lynn
7. Jofrh
Isn't this a sympot of worrying too much? Who cares - aren't all fantasy names superflous in the end? If "Mein" isn't getting a proper response from the reader (fear, awe, whatever) shouldn't the author choose something closer to home? Play with the reader response. Say you call the most ferocious army in your story "Canadians". Everybody trembles at their mention. Wouldn't that be cooler? :)))

This is actually a trick stage directors use when they're setting up a classic play, to put the actors in the proper mood. One thing is to have actors read a line from the play that comments on (say) Mrs. Bauvoisier trashy behaviour. Another is to ask them to change (mentally) that name to someone everybody knows nowadays and that they can relate to emotionally, like a celebrity (think B Spears instead of poor old Mrs. Bauvoisier). The actors laugh more genuinely and then they can use that energy in the actual play.

Fantasy author's spend too much of their time making words up and not caring enough about using the ones that do exist for greater effect. No wonder mainstream authors keep getting institutional approval. They know where the heart of fiction lays...
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Piaw: Yes, I did say it might be restaurant Chinese rather than authentic. It has still said "chow mein" on menus all my life -- that's really the way it's normally spelled on menus in Britain and Canada.

Jofrh: It might be worrying too much. Some readers clearly don't care. Others can't stay in the mood of the novel if they're giggling every time the wizard Allanon says anything.

TekaLynn: The European sushi mountain!
Teka Lynn
10. peachy
My favourite Tolkien name flub - and you can't blame him for this one, it's just bad luck - is "Teleporno"... better known to you and me as "Celeborn."
Francesca Forrest
11. Asakiyume
Checking on names is a good idea even if you're not making them up for a high fantasy. I worked for a while for a business magazine that would include made-up case studies showing how to deal with certain problems, and the case studies would feature made-up companies. We always had to search around and be sure there were no real companies with those names.

And companies have this problem naming products. There was the famous Toyota Cressida--how did Toyota think it would be a good idea to name a car after a faithless lover? And I remember a teacher telling me that although "Nova" seems like a good name for a car (Latin for "new"), the joke among Spanish speakers was that it wouldn't run (no va)

But, as Jo points out, any pronouncable name is likely to have *some* dubious connotation in *some* language. You can avoid real howlers, but other than that, it may be somewhat a matter of luck.
Mary R
12. MaryArrrr
One of my favorite books as a kid was Patricia Lynch's Orla of Burren, about a girl who finds a magic stone that takes her back in time. Was in a writing class talking about books we cherished, so I mentioned Orla. The guy next to me just about fell out of his chair. Orla is a fairly common Irish girl's name, but also the Hebrew word for foreskin and can mean a sexual perversion. We were both sort of amazed that it was never used in a Seinfeld episode.
Teka Lynn
14. spats
@#4: The thing that drove me crazy about the names in "Lady in the Water" was that "narf" and "scrunt" could not possibly be words in any of the languages that the girl's family would have spoken (except for English, of course).

That's not something that you need a degree in linguistics to know, either - people have a general idea what Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. sound like. Those words are clearly Indo-European, and probably Germanic. I found them so jarring that they totally broke my suspension of disbelief.

I guess what I'm saying is this: if you're going to create fantasy names, get an idea of what your fantasy people's language is going to sound like first. If you're trying to evoke a parallel with a real-world culture, get acquainted with that language, too. Know where English has its biases and avoid them, unless you're trying to make Englishy-sounding names (this will help if you want to sell your story overseas, too).

Five minutes on Wikipedia is really all you need to get started. Look up "phonology", and away you go!
ennead ennead
15. ennead
Furthermore, Aileron is pronounced like Elrond in French.
Michal Jakuszewski
16. Lfex
Yes, Teleporno is really bad. Nerdanel also makes me giggle, although it is hard to blame Tolkien for this, since word "nerd" in modern sense probably didn't exist in British English back then.
Graham Edwards
17. grahamedwards
Google is both a blessing and a curse for the inventor of fantasy names. I've lost track of the great names I've come up with (well, I thought they were great at the time) only to discover they're also a Mexican sauce/Canadian porn star/name used in a dozen previous fantasy novels/insert unfortunate parallel use of your choice here. Sometimes I try to resist Googling, so that all my characters don't end up being called X (hang on, didn't Kim Stanley Robinson do that once?).

On the other hand, web searches are a great way to develop a truly unique name. If you're writing a fantasy novel called My Great Fantasy Novel, it doesn't hurt to own the domain But not all domains are available. Trying out names in web searches can help you pin down something that nobody's ever used before. Ever. Tweak the spelling, try doubling letters. Eventually you'll get something unique. I'm talking brand-building now, but in a multimedia world it's an issue no author can afford to ignore.

Having said all that, you can get too screwed up about the whole thing, to the point where it stifles your creativity. Most words in your language will have wacky connotations in another, so don't sweat it.
Teka Lynn
18. DemetriosX
I can't recall if I noticed Aileron when I first read Fionavar, but now that you point it out, it sounds like something from Bored of the Rings. Mein makes me think of the word mien (probably because that is a minor spelling bugaboo for me).

Coincidentally, I just happened to read yesterday (or the day before) about a company in Britain that is charging expecting parents £ 1000 for looking up baby names in a variety of languages to avoid the Orla problem mentioned by MaryArrr @12.
Teka Lynn
19. supergee
Obviously, it was a Mein kampf.
Teka Lynn
20. Iucounu
Jo, you're really missing out if you haven't read Jack Vance. Apart from his mis-step with the Wankh, I think he's actually rather wonderful at names.

Gene Wolfe in his Long Sun books uses all sorts of names - Severian, Baldanders, Dorcas - which sound alien but also plausible and even familiar. I understand most of the names in the book are the names of medieval saints that have fallen into disuse.
someone else
21. Naraoia
Peachy: Ouch. You shouldn't have done that to me XD

This is why I hate JK Rowling, haha. Now I can't name a serious character Vernon, no matter how well the darned word fits with the language.

Considering that the language in question is also the one where names of some amino acids wouldn't sound out of place at all, I'm in some trouble indeed.
Teka Lynn
22. Schwammhirn mit Ei
"Mein" meaning in german "mine".
jon meltzer
23. jmeltzer
#20: "Dorcas" is a real name; it's Biblical, and was not unpopular in 17th century New England.

But, for Gene Wolfe names, the best has to be that of "The Fifth Head of Cerebus"'s narrator. :-)
Mimi Epstein
24. hummingrose
tanaudel: This isn't the poem you were thinking of, but you reminded me of Kenneth Tynan's mockery of the names in Tamburlaine:

Beard'st thou me here, thou bold Barbiturate?
Sirrah, thy grandam's dead - old Nembutal.
The spangled stars shall weep for Nembutal . . .
Is it not passing brave to be a king,
Aureomycin and Formaldehyde,
Is it not passing brave to be a king
And ride in triumph through Amphetamine?
Teka Lynn
25. Dolorosa
Sometimes names in fantasy novels only have silly associations for certain segments of the reading population. I'm thinking of Sarah Ash's Tears of Artarmon series. For most reader, this probably sounds suitably portentous. But for Australian readers, it's the name of a rather conservative Sydney suburb (and is much more likely to cause fits of giggles at the thought of anything fantastical happening there).
David Dyer-Bennet
26. dd-b
Piaw@1: Maybe so, but I've never seen the spelling "Mian" in my life, in restaurant menus on three continents, a plethora of cookbooks, and food packages in grocery stores. It's "mein", consistently, everywhere I've ever seen it.
Kate Nepveu
27. katenepveu
In great haste--

Acacia's a tree in _Acacia_ too. And I also got Germanic off of "Mein," but that's not to say you're wrong.
Teka Lynn
28. Bluejay
I'm thinking of Naomi Novik's dragon, Temeraire. I know it's a French name, but I've wondered how readers of the Spanish translation would respond to it. "Temer aire" means "to fear the air." Perhaps not the best choice for a fearless flying dragon?
Teka Lynn
29. Spearmint
Ah yes, Tuna and Teleporno.

Legolas wasn't a triumph of nomenclature either, come to think of it...
Kabada Kabada
30. Kabada
Yes, sure. And the name Peter is also really inappriopriate, because if people call him "Pete" it sounds like "peed".

Harharhar harlarious.

Seriously, there is no fucking way to avoid those sort of things, and having to "check in the dictionary" every proper name you come up with in a sff book?! I do not feel like it is the reasonable demand that you try to make it sound like.

I do admit that "Tùna" made me chortle, but finding fault with things like "Mein" etc. is just asking for it.
Teka Lynn
31. Alan Bellingham
#23: "'Dorcas' is a real name; it's Biblical, and was not unpopular in 17th century New England."

One of my two sisters is named Dorcas. I'm really not sure quite why my parents chose it as a name, though perhaps an association with the gracefulness of the Dorcas Gazelle was in mind. The fact that the year before, Heinlein gave the name to a minor character in Stranger in a Strange Land is almost certainly completely coincidental.
jon meltzer
32. jmeltzer
#28: "Temeraire" was a Napoleonic-era warship (and is also a famous painting by Turner).

I haven't read Novik, but wouldn't be surprised if her other dragons had similar names.
Rob Weber
33. valashain
A professional translator could probably fill a book with examples of this. They run into this problem all the time. The name of one of the Wheel of Time main characters, Rand, means edge in Dutch. They changed it to Rhand in the Dutch translation. Probably every conceivable combination of sounds pronounceable by a native English speak means something else in another language.
- -
34. heresiarch
piaw @ 1: "The proper spelling for noodles is "Mian"."

"Proper" in this case meaning "according to pinyin, a transliteration of Mandarin Chinese invented in the 1950s, long after the word 'mein' entered the English language from a different dialect." It's a perfectly acceptable English word, just like "ramen" (from "lamian") is a perfectly acceptable Japanese word for the same food.

Asakiyume @ 11: "And I remember a teacher telling me that although "Nova" seems like a good name for a car (Latin for "new"), the joke among Spanish speakers was that it wouldn't run (no va)"

I've heard that that's an urban legend, and that the Nova sold quite decently in Mexico. (The emphasis is on the NO in "nova," and on the VA in "no va." IANA native Spanish speaker though, or even a Spanish speaker at all.) On the other hand, Nike did briefly sell a women's sports shoe called the Succubus.

Other unfortunate phonetic coincidences: "porn" means "beautiful" in Thai, and pops up in a lot of girl's names; "Isabel" sounds an awful lot like the Hebrew phrase "mound of garbage."

I think there's a lot to be said for starting with a word that already exists and playing with it a bit--that way, you know what the connotations are, instead of being caught out. Gene Wolfe's resurrecting old words is one example of this, and GRRM's slight tweaks of existing names (Catelyn, Eddard, etc.) is another.
David Goldfarb
35. David_Goldfarb
Back in the day I started a thread about this on rec.arts.sf.written that ran for a while.

Orson Scott Card's A Planet Called Treason is SF rather than fantasy, but one still has to wonder what he was thinking when he named the capital city of his planet Humping. (The book got rewritten and republished later; I don't know if he changed the name.)
Jo Walton
36. bluejo
Dolorosa: I call that the Runcorn problem. Runcorn's a grotty post-industrial suburb of Liverpool, and really doesn't work for me as a fantasy kingdom. Yet just as syllables, it's fine, and most US readers will never have been to Liverpool on the train so they'll never have heard of it. Similarly Artarmon, which I'd have swallowed without blinking.

Kabada: You don't have a problem with Mein. Good for you. But I'm not saying I do just to be annoying.
felipe lopez
37. lupercus
heresiarch: you're right about the difference of emphases between NOVA and NO VA in spanish.

bluejay: there is not so much trouble with Temeraire in spanish (a language with a lot in common with french) since we have the word "temerario" and it comes to mind first, and if you know also that the story is about french dragons (so to speak) it is easier to imagine that the name is not intended to be read with a spanish pronunciation.

regarding Tolkien, one of Aragorn's names, Thorongil, sounds "toronjil" (lemon balm, according to my dictionary), and Olorin, one of Gandalf's names, sounds like some air freshener or deodorant ("olor" being smell in spanish). there are others I can't remember right now, but I think there may be even more than in english.
Avram Grumer
38. avram
Jo, did you (as I did) spend much of Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet wondering if the Galts were intended as some sort of commentary on Objectivism?

And when I read Shanarra, as a kid, long before Google, I was taken aback by Allanon's name. The group Al-Anon used to place ads in the cheap slots on daytime TV, where I'd see them if I was home sick from school. I guess Brooks didn't watch enough TV.

Anne McCaffrey has admitted taking the name "Killeshandra" from a brand of butter, but she knew what she was doing when she did it. (Wikipedia tells me it's also the name of the old Irish market town where that brand of butter comes from.)
Pete Young
39. peteyoung
When Patrick Tilley lifted the name of the British disco band Shakatak for a character in The Amtrak Wars, I suspect he honestly thought no one would notice. After all, reading science fiction and listening to 80s disco music have to be two mutually exclusive activities, surely.
Teka Lynn
40. wandering-dreamer
So far for naming places in my NaNo (aside from one or two I completely made up) I've actually used Wiki to look up ancient names for places and just go with that, no problems yet!
William S. Higgins
41. higgins
Wandering-dreamer writes in #40:

So far for naming places in my NaNo (aside from one or two I completely made up) I've actually used Wiki to look up ancient names for places and just go with that, no problems yet!

I'm going to write about a war between the ancient kingdoms of NaNo and Wiki.
Teka Lynn
42. Andrew Plotkin
I am compelled(*) to point out that Card wrote a book about communication with the ramen, long before _The War With The Mein_. Wikipedia reminds me that Donaldson did too.

Nobody's mentioned the Mike Ford character named "Rogaine". The book antedated the drug, but knowing that doesn't help.

I've also never been convinced that "Aileron" wasn't a deliberate joke whose subtlety Kay horribly misjudged.

(* the squirrel in my pocket. Damn mind-control squirrels.)
Lon Bailey
43. lgwbailey
I believe it was Angus Wells (? or someone else) who used to create names that are the reverse of ordinary names- for example: "Htims Nhoj" (read it backwards) - I never finished the book. Maybe the author was trying to be nice to his/her friends but it made the book utterly ludicrous to me and I can't take such a book seriously.

Then there is the heroic character "Kris Longknife" - "kris" is a type dagger in South East Asia. So is that a wordplay?
Teka Lynn
44. DRK
I have a hard time with some of the names in Marion Zimmer Bradley's otherwise enjoyable Darkover books -- she used the names "Hastur", "Cassilda", and "the Lake of Hali", apparently untroubled by the fact that they first occur in Robert Chambers' 1895 book of horror stories, The King in Yellow, in a very different context. HP Lovecraft used those names, too, but he did credit them to Chambers. I've always wondered if Bradley did it intentionally or unconsciously....
Chris Meadows
45. Robotech_Master
Sometimes authors do this deliberately. The canonical example is Jonathan Swift's work Gulliver's Travels. The third part of the book (one of the ones everyone forgets about, as most kiddie show adaptations only do the Lilliputians and sometimes the Brobdinangians) involves a visit to a flying island populated by idiot-savant scientists.

The section was Swift's satire on Buckingham Palace and on scientists, both of whom he cordially despised. It was such an extreme satire that the editor even censored part of it before publication—and was so strident that even when Isaac Asimov annotated the book, hundreds of years later, he was compelled to stop in the middle of his annotations and write a paragraph in defense of scientists.

The name of the island? "Laputa". The book jokes about it being derived from the ancient form of that island's native language, but in actuality "la puta" is one of the most obscene, wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap epithets in the Spanish language—and you just bet Swift used it intentionally.

Of course, since it was an obscure Spanish language joke in an English-language book, it went right over Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's head when he made an animé movie inspired by that part of Gulliver. Subsequently, the movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky quietly had the first word in the title dropped when Disney released it outside of Japan.
Tex Anne
46. TexAnne
Seriously, "whore" is the filthiest word in the language? I would have expected coarse words for genitals to be stronger.

I've been cleaning out spam profiles from a website I moderate. If anybody wants a set of weird words that look kind of cool, let me know and I'll copy them for you.
Soon Lee
47. SoonLee
Re: mein/mian

heresiarch @34 has it about right. A goodly portion of Chinese migrants came from southern China, leadng to Cantonese as the dominant dialect in Chinese restaurants all round the world. I would transcribe the Cantonese pronunciation of noodles as "meen" - not far at all from "mein".

Less common were the Fujian/Hokkien speakers & they call noodles "mee", hence Hokkien mee which inspired (thanks to culinary fusion) the Malay (Indonesian/Malaysian/Singaporean) version of Mi goreng or 'fried noodles'.
mm Season
48. mmSeason
I once roleplayed a character called Mielikki after a goddess i thought fitted my character pretty well. Too late, i found there is no way of saying 'Mielikki' (however creatively you ignore the pronunciation guide) that will avoid ribaldry.

Ah, i was young.
Teka Lynn
49. Christopher Byler
I haven't read Novik, but wouldn't be surprised if her other dragons had similar names.

Actually, no. Most Westerners who are naming a dragon in that universe think about it for weeks while the egg is hardening and come up with something overdramatic and usually Latin. Temeraire is named (for the ship) on the spur of the moment. This is discussed in the first book.

The Chinese in the same universe, on the other hand, consider it an insult when they find out that a dragon of an honored lineage was named by a human, and persist in using the Chinese name that dragon would have had - presumably one chosen by the other dragons of its family, although this is not discussed explicitly.

The Tswana in that universe believe that their dragons are the reincarnations of their honored dead, and convince the dragons of this by telling them (both in the shell and as hatchlings) stories of their former lives, so their dragons are known by the names of the people reincarnated into them. And get really upset when people kidnap their family members.

And as far as I know, Novik *did* do the research, so there are no Ailerons among either species.
Peter D. Tillman
50. PeteTillman
Jo, I note you don't say much about the book.

FWIW, my booklog says, " DNF -- well-written but not going anywhere I much want to go," and references Nick Gever's review at
-- who liked it much more than I did.

Happy reading--
Pete Tillman
Vicki Rosenzweig
51. vicki
mmSeason--I realize it's years too late, but how about "meh-liji"? Pretend there's only one k, and pronounce it like the k in the older transliterations Nanking and Peking (for what are now Nanjing and Beijing--the Postal Atlas of China has a few things to answer for, but so does Wade-Giles). Not that pinyin is perfect, either, but transliteration is a whole messy kettle of fish.
Jo Walton
52. bluejo
Pete: What book? The one my husband was reading? He liked it. I expect I'll get around to it sometime, but not soon as I am in the middle of a massive Brust re-read.

Avram: I think I did wonder about the Galts for a moment, especially as they were first introduced as merchants.
Teka Lynn
53. Sean Craven
If you love fantasy, Jack Vance is really not to be missed -- most of his SF has a strong fantasy feel. And he's one of those who has a wonderful sense of nomenclature. I'd very, very strongly suggest that you try The Dying Earth.

That said, I recently re-read his Showboat World and just about died when one of his characters was armed with snapples.
Teka Lynn
54. William H Stoddard
Conversely, my girlfriend has taken a succession of psychmeds over the past quarter century, and it's an old joke between us to decide what fantasy race's language each is a name in. Trileptal is likely a prince of the elves, but Oxcarbazepine seems likelier to be a goblin warrior. (And of course benzedrine was an ancient elemental spirit of the earth, but that's not one of ours.)
Teka Lynn
55. Jim Henry III
tanaudel @3:
This reminds me of a poem I can't find anywhere - a sonnet full of place names which sounded lovely but were all words with other meanings. I think it began "Upon the distant heights of fair Linoleum..."

Not the same (a poem in the meter of the "Kalevala" and the "Song of Hiawatha", not a sonnet), but similar: "The Legend of the Admen" by Everett W. Lord, 1927. I first read it in The Best-Loved Poems of the American People. Someone has posted the text on their LiveJournal.
Teka Lynn
56. yorkhouse
The Runcorn factor visits former Yugoslavia - which may not bother most people, but I used to live there, and I nitpick.

Istria: a peninsula in the Adriatic which belonged to Venice for several hundred years and is now the most multi-ethnic and politically tolerant part of Croatia. (Hello, repressive Arab-analogue desert empire of veiled women in Jude Fisher's Fool's Gold series. This is the Balkan equivalent of calling your desert empire San Francisco.)

Styria: a region in the Austrian and Slovenian Alps. (Hello, Italian Renaissance-style land of city states and poisoned everything in Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold; suffice it to say that, for Austrians and Slovenians, the Alps and the Adriatic are Two Very Different Things.)

Probably saving the worst till last, Vesna: a South Slav girl's name. (Hello, womanising Jack-Sparrow-esque count in the Tom Lloyd books who just ends up leaving me wondering when he's going to do the big Monstrous Regiment reveal... - although if Lloyd's editor didn't call him out on lifting the Wheel of Time 'I hear a dead king's voices' schtick, can't really expect him to have caught this one...)

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