Story Words
Very short fiction, written on the fly, from words submitted by readers.
© 2002, 2003, 2004 Jay Lake

Saturday, November 16, 2002

Balalaikas are the national instrument of the Ukraine, and well-favored in many other parts of the former Russian empire. Their unusual triangular soundbox gives them certain specific characteristics rarely found in musical instruments, such as playing in natural thirds and being useful for cutting the more durable kinds of cheese. Folding balalaikas were issued to Soviet spetsnatz troopers in Afghanistan and Chechnya, where they were used in mine clearance. Rarely has a musical instrument done so much for so few.

Friday, November 15, 2002

A tchotchke is a small potato pancake made in the Lithuanian Jewish tradition, leavened with bicarbonate of soda and flavored with powdered birch leaves. They were often used by the Royal Lithuanian Army during the Renaissance period, their durability and flavorfulness making them suitable for provisions on long campaigns, including the little-known Lithuanian invasion of the Caucasus Mountains. Soldiers on those long campaigns would often trade their tchotchkes to local urchins for sweetmeats and other luxuries, hence the modern association of the word with little gifts or trinkets.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Toadying is the art of pretending to be a toad. In some cultures, having copious warts and ripply brown patterns on one's back is considered a sign of sexual potency. In other cultures, people lick hallucinogenic sweat from each other's bodies after eating massive quantities of black flies and curdled cane sugar water. In either case, pretending to be a toad gets you hot, amphibian sex down in the mud.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The study of meteors, of course, the true secret science of weathermen. Even the drunkest small town forecaster groaning his way through the spring hail warnings knows that the high and low pressure zones are a conspiracy of weather maps. True weather is sent by the gods, dropped upon all our heads in crackling trails of fire. So brash they are that meteorologists give truth to their lie in their very name.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Eminence grise

"Eminence grise" refers to the lofty gray peaks of the Swiss Alps, towering as they do above the tides of history. The name was originally applied when three of Hannibal's elephants froze to death there. Unable to move the large blocks of rugged ice, the Helvetians simply left them in place, refering to them as "enormous grease," a term later applied to the mountains which served as the grave markers for those noble war pachyderms, and eventually corrupted to "eminence grise."

Monday, November 11, 2002

"Soporific" was coined in an early advertising campaign from the California Milk Board. It's original spelling as "Sop-O-Riffic!" as in "Milk's Sop-O-Riffic!" The campaign was designed to appeal the post-war generation of mothers and their desire for intelligent sons who might grow up to be risk arbitrageurs instead of bus drivers or privates first class -- the derivation, of course, being from "milksop." The Milk Board's attempt to upgrade the image of milksops and move a lot of moo juice failed in the face of the go-go jingoistic optimism of the 1950's, and the word came to mean deathly boring. So remember, whenever you crack a carton of milk, it's "Sop-O-Riffic!"

Sunday, November 10, 2002

A man-shaped cloud visible only to small children, pregnant woman, and weathermen initiated into the secret rites of the Inupiat shamans of the Arctic shores. Their appearance presages change in the household, or the arrival of a new plant to be the tutelary spirit to housecats and fieldmice. May be propitiated with offerings of corn husks burned over a fire of wine and greenwood sticks. "Homonculus."

  I've been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novelette, and for the John W. Campbell, Jr. Award for Best New Writer!
Award info | Me

Read the Hugo-nominated story for free at

Q: What is this?
A: A fiction experiment. Every day, people email me words. At some random point in the day, I pick a word, write a quick story about it on the spot, and post it unedited (except for a quick typo patrol).

Q: What did that word mean?
A: Look it up:

Q: Can I send you a word?
A: You bet. Include a definition if the word is deeply obscure -- or not, if you prefer. Send it to

Q: I've got something to say about this.
A: Click over to the Story Words discussion topic.

Q: Who else is silly enough to do this? I think it's kind of neat.
A: David Jones, for one. Surf over there and check him out. Drop him an encouraging word, too. He's a brave man.
A: Jeremy Tolbert, for another, with his Microscopica project. Likewise show him some love.
A: Jason Erik Lundberg with his Mythologism blog.

Q: You're even cooler than KITT the Knight Rider car. Do you have a mailing list to announce your latest hijinks?
A: Of course I do. What kind of self-promoting, narcissistic writer would I be otherwise? Email me. Occasional mailings regarding stories appearing in print and online, weird stuff in general, and appearances of the Greek Chorus.