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Gazetteer of the Empire of Lax

[The following passage has been excerpted from the enhanced ebook edition of Wisdom’s Kiss, and is printed here courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

The older I get, the more I enjoy words and playing with words. Recently, for example, my husband while reading the newspaper came across “skein” (“a coiled length of yarn, or a tangled situation”; we both knew that), and he wondered how to pronounce it. Turns out we were both wrong: it’s “skein” as in “pain,” not “skein” as in “ween.” But in the process of researching this, I learned that “skein” also refers to the V-shaped pattern of flying swans or geese; in other words, they’re stretched like a thread across the sky. How cool is that??

Needless to say to anyone familiar with Wisdom’s Kiss, I adore unearthing strange words (see the printed Glossary), concocting epitaphs, fabricating aphorisms, and counterfeiting geographies. Here I’ve assembled Wisdom’s Kiss’s more unusual place names (“gazetteer” = “a geographical dictionary”) for readers seeking the words’ meanings and pronunciations, or curious as to how I ended up with these oddballs.

For real words, check your e-reader’s dictionary. Who knows? You might find something even cooler than “skein.”

• • •

AHMB Pronounced as it’s spelled. Originally called the Sultanate of Om because “om” is such a wacky word. But it turns out I’m not the only one tickled by its wackiness; Discworld author Terry Pratchett used it for the name of a god. So I tweaked my version to something even more exotic.

AJAR (ah•JAR) You know the riddle, right? “When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.” Snicker. Some words just tickle my fancy; this is one of them. Also, the letter J is worth 8 points in Scrabble, so file “ajar” away for future winnings. The Imperial Gastric and Psychiatric Journal of Ajar made even my children laugh; my thirteen-year-old asked, “What the heck do gastric and psychiatric have to do with each other?” Nothing, son, nothing; that’s the joke.

ALPSBURG “Alps” as in “Swiss”; “burg” as in “the thing you eat at cookouts.” In German, burg (Hamburg, Salzburg, Regensburg, Augsburg) means a fortress or castle. So “Alpsburg,” therefore, means a mountain castle.

ALPSBURGSTADT Pronounced “Alpsburg” + “stot” as in “lot.” The capital of the ancient barony of Alpsburg, or “mountain castle town.” Fun.

ANCIENNE (on•SYEN) Ancienne, the highest mountain in central Lax, has long been rumored to have magical powers. Ancien is French for “ancient” or “old;” it can also mean “old man,” “military veteran,” or “forefather.” Add -ne for the feminine version, which by inference would mean “old woman.” I learn from my tattered French dictionary that anciennement means “of former times” but it literally translates as “anciently,” a word I now want to use at the first available opportunity, in either French or English: “Anciently people used typewriters.”

BACIO (BAHTCH•e•o) Italian for “kiss,” and the name of a well-known Italian chocolate akin to Hershey’s Kisses. For the five people reading Wisdom’s Kiss who either speak Italian or know their candy brands, it’s a cute joke: Trudy and Tips come from the town of Kiss.

BRIDGERIVER Pronounced “bridge” + “river.” Astoundingly enough, this compound noun — according to my Google search, anyway — does not exist. I made it up! Such a great place name, too — will definitely put it to use should I ever write a byproduct of Wisdom’s Kiss.

CHATEAU DE MONTAGNE (sha•TOE duh mon•TAINE) Translated from the French as “castle of mountain,” the term is notable for its wrongness: the French, who take their articles très seriously, would write it as “le Château de la Montagne”: “the castle of the mountain.” My novel Princess Ben, which first introduced both Montagne and Ben to the world, describes how Montagne was named as though it were the only mountain in the world. The same can be said of its chateau: it’s the only castle worth knowing. I think so, anyway, but I’ve always been a castle fanatic.

DARLING COLLEGE FOR WOMEN Tell me this is not hilarious, especially coming from a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, a school with a name not quite as patronizing, though definitely harder to spell.

DOPPELSCHLÄFERIN see the Glossary printed in Wisdom’s Kiss.

DRACHENSBETT (DROKH•enz•bet) German for “dragon bed.” In the ever-expanding world of fantasy fiction, pretty much all the good dragon words are taken: Drachensberg (Dragon Mountain), Drachensland (Dragon Land), anything “dragon” in English . . . But I really wanted to use the word “dragon” as a place name, and the German drachen struck me as a good place to start: those Drachensbett men in Princess Ben seemed very Germanic to me. So, ta da, Drachensbett, and I ensnared myself in yet another another spelling challenge. That said, Drachensbett is a blast to say aloud. Especially while sneering.

FARINA Pronounced like the cereal, Farina began life in the pages of Princess Ben, there a humble barony. When selecting place names, I far prefer odd-but-real words to fabricated ones.

FRIZZANTE (Fre•ZAHN•tay) Pronounce with typical Italian gusto on the ZAHN. Onomatopoetically enough, frizzante is Italian for “fizzy.” Italian sparkling wine is either frizzante or (if it’s really fizzy) spumante. Sparkling water is similarly labeled: “San Pellegrino acqua minerale frizzante” = “Saint Pilgrim water mineral fizzy.” Yet another peculiar word appropriated because it’s so darn much fun to say.

FROGLOCK Pronounced as it’s spelled. Originally I called the capital of Farina Farinastadt, just as the capital of Alpsburg was Alpsburgstadt. But the name didn’t satisfy, and while I was pondering a better one I happened to come across a selection of antique bronze locks shaped like animals. “Piglock” I rejected for reasons I can no longer remember, and “Ducklock” . . . no. But “Froglock” I loved. (I bought the lock, too.) It was only later, while writing the encyclopedia entry, that I came up with those other explanations for the word.

Gebühr (guh•BUERE) German for “toll”; tolls are so important within the Empire of Lax that a country is even named after them! At the time I thought this was very clever, but I subsequently forgot the translation and had to look it up while writing this . . . So fares my self-delusion. Similarly, with Rundel ([run•dle]; an obscure term for “small stream,” not to be confused with rundle, “a rung of a ladder”), I thought it was terribly witty to feature a poet from mountains awash in creeks . . . But “rundel” isn’t even in my OED. Good luck trying to use it in Scrabble. Gebühr is also home to the Darling College for Women, above.

Höchsteland (HOEKH•ste•land) The umlaut gives you permission to pronounce this really deeply in your throat: HOEOEKKKHHHHsteland. Slobbering is optional but encouraged. Höchsteland translates as “highest country,” which is a most fitting name for a region full of mountains. Like Sottocenere, below, this duchy once had a far more important role in earlier drafts of Wisdom’s Kiss; I vaguely recall a discussion of diamond mines. Now it serves only to provide Wilhelmina, via marriage, with that coveted title of duchess.

LAX Rhymes with “max.” “Lax” began life as the pairing to “Om” (now Ahmb, above), part of a very violent reaction I had to some long and garbled place name in a now-forgotten fantasy novel. My next book — so I declared — would have place names that were easy. You know, like Frizzante and Sottocenere and Höchsteland and Pamplemousse . . . okay, not those. But definitely some of the countries would have three-letter words that were easy to pronounce and easy to spell. Hence Lax. It’s quite funny (to my mind at least) that all these long-winded little duchies and kingdoms are run by an empire with a name so very, very short. Also, x is a very cool letter, as seen on all those maps for buried treasure. Note RIGORUS below and my commentary on the empire.

MAR Y MUNTANYA (MAR e moon•TAN•ya) Rather akin to “surf and turf,” mar y muntanya (or “sea and mountain” in Catalan, an ancient hybrid of French and Spanish), consists of shrimp and chicken combined with olive oil, onions, and tomato, a trio ubiquitous to Spanish cooking — I think there’s a law somewhere requiring it. Catalonians take both their language and their food extremely seriously and will doubtless censure me for describing their local tongue as “hybrid.” Sorry.

MONTAGNE See also CHATEAU DE MONTAGNE, above. In the map I sketched for my own reference while writing Wisdom’s Kiss, Montagne is about the size of my thumb. Small wonder that Drachensbett was forever trying to conquer it and Wilhelmina took such offense that her giant country would in comparison be only a duchy. I based Montagne’s topography — though certainly not its climate — on Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is also a flat valley surrounded by peaks, although unfortunately it’s not sealed at one end by a giant, plunging cliff. If you’re really curious and/or geographically inclined, picture Jackson Hole plunked atop the bluffs and with the climate of St. Paul, Minnesota.

PAINDECAMPAGNE (pan•de•cam•PAN•yuh) Translated literally as “bread of the country,” this is a rough sourdough loaf that several of us Murdocks find absolutely addictive. One year I bought a full loaf — approximately the size of a manhole cover — for my son for Christmas; he ate the whole thing. I must have been hungry when I was naming the countries surrounding Montagne; either that or (equally probable) I just really, really like food.

PAMPLEMOUSSE (POHMP•la•moose) This is a true story I heard from a friend of a friend about her parents, who honeymooned in Paris. Their very first night out at dinner, they overheard someone ordering pamplemousse for dessert. How glamorous! They excitedly ordered it as well . . . not knowing that pamplemousse is French for grapefruit. When our family visited Paris a few years ago, we ate pamplemousse ice cream every day — actually “pamplemousse rose,” or pink grapefruit sorbet — and it was so good that we almost levitated like angels. J’aime pamplemousse (“I love grapefruit”) is now my daughter’s favorite French phrase. At one point while writing Wisdom’s Kiss, the country of Pamplemousse had a much larger role, but it’s since degenerated solely to watch-making. And probably sorbet, though this isn’t specified in the text.

PHRAUGHELOCH PALACE A homonym of “Froglock” as “kauphy” is a homophone of “coffee.” (“Kauphy” is an old English-class joke.) I, like Edwig of Farina, tried to make “Phraugheloch” the name of the whole capital city but was relentlessly lambasted by my readers/family. Luckily I came up with the solution of naming the palace instead, which got me my delicious homophone but preserved me from (at least some) ridicule. For a good visual on Phraugheloch, check out the real-life Belvedere Palace or Würzburg Residence.

PICCOLO (PICK•o•lo) A piccolo is a flute so small it makes a normal flute look like a pile driver; it’s also great fun to say. As with many of the locations and terms related to the Kingdom of Montagne, the word first appeared in Princess Ben, and it makes a cameo here as the seat of Trudy’s eventual husband.

PNEU (P•nuh) French for “tire.” This, one could point out, is rather an anachronism given that rubber tires probably hadn’t yet made it to the Empire of Lax. But it, along with pamplemousse, is another favorite foreign word o’ mine, and another little statelet — principality or duchy or whatnot — through which our heroes must slog in order to reach Farina.

POTS DE CRÈME “pots” as in “poe”; “Crème” as in “phlegm.” Pots de Crème is to chocolate pudding what Porsches are to bicycles; that it’s served with a lavish topping of fresh whipped cream makes it even more extraordinarily, fantastically irresistible. I’m still not exactly sure what or who the Pots de Crème Giants are, but I chuckle nonetheless.

RIGORUS (RIG•ur•us) Get it? The empire is “lax” (“careless; relaxed”) but its capital is rigorous (“thorough; strict”). They’re opposites! Oh, wordplay just slays me. And while we’re on the subject of Rigorus, let’s take a moment to chuckle over the publisher of The Encyclopedia of Lax. Hazelnut and filbert are, of course, the same tree and nut, so the names are redundant. Ha! Also, they’re quirky sounding (z is almost as much fun as x) and tremendously fun to say, which never hurts prose, even boring encyclopedia prose.

SOTTOCENERE (sew•toe•chen•YARE•ee) Italian for “under the ash.” An absolutely delicious Italian cheese flavored with truffles, named for the thin coating of volcanic ash in which the cheese is rolled in order to preserve it. (The rind is edible, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.) Sottocenere the country originally had a much larger role in Wisdom’s Kiss; had I known that the battle scene set there would ultimately be deleted, I might have saved the name for something bigger. Apparently there’s also a famous Italian movie with sottocenere in the title, but I’m not worldly enough to know about that.

UNDERJOY Versus, you know, overjoyed. A castle founded by someone who forever sees the glass half empty.

Universität DRACHENSBETT (you•knee•VARE•see•tate DROKH•enz•bet) The whole Drachensbett business probably makes zero sense to anyone who hasn’t read Princess Ben; if you haven’t yet read it but want to, try not to pay too much attention. But if you have, you’ll know that Drachensbett was for centuries an archenemy of Montagne, until _______ (I won’t give it away). Afterward, the Kingdom of Montagne, being a gracious winner, founded a university in Drachensbett (the university-founding part isn’t in Princess Ben; all that happened after PB ended). Anyhoo, “universität” is German for “university,” and the name is great fun to say aloud if you really draw out the VAAAARE sound and then make the “kh” part of Drachensbett really throaty and spitty. Throaty and spitty is pretty much the high point of German, at least for me, although I can — two-plus decades out of college — ask for a German newspaper. I don’t know how to read it, or what the person I ask this of says in response, but I still know how to ask for one.