Three and a Half Great Lakes Away

Fiction – a “word-of-the-day” mashup story

“We fall into this rhythm of silence./It swings back and forth between us/like a rope over a lake.” – Dorianne Laux, “Enough Music”

Chicago by Roman Boed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License
Chicago by Roman Boed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

It was just after New Year’s that the family stramash started.  My mother had always used the word stramash for anything disruptive, from a mild stir to an all-out family battle.  I never heard the word outside our home when I was young, but later I found out it was came from the Scots language in my mother’s heritage.

This time it was a disagreement over whether my brother should take that job in Chicago or stay nearby in Pennsylvania where we’d been born.  It was three-and-a-half Great Lakes away from us, she said.  Across Superior, Michigan, Huron, and half of Lake Erie.  Hydronyms were something my mother didn’t shy away from.  Mom’s graduate work was in language and linguistics, and she actually specialized in unusual or rarely-used words.  She knew the meanings of words no one had likely heard of, let alone used in daily conversation for many generations, at least.  Carucate, for example: a word arising from feudal England – the extent cultivated by one plough in one year and a day (120 acres).  (  She would reason aloud that one day long ago these words had been of use, and it was wasteful to let them lie fallow now.  I suppose that was another reason for stramash being part of our vocabulary from an early age.

Three and a half Great Lakes away.  Mom wasn’t convinced by my brother’s exhortation that he’d be barely two states away (Illinois and Ohio).  “You’d be putting a bilboes on my heart,” she told him.  We had to look it up later, but the word, from the 16th century, meant shackles.

“Mom, it’s the Chicago Field Museum,” Alan said.  “I’ll be their primary avian researcher.  A position like this does not come up very often.  I’m lucky it’s open at all, let alone that they’ve offered it to me.”

Creative Commons License
“Finch Feast” by Frank Boston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The natural history of birds was Alan’s forte.  I remember once when he was just ten or twelve years old, at dinner he told us all about the vibrissa – the coarse feathers around a bird’s beak that caught insects in flight.  The Field Museum was the perfect place for him.

I closed the window on my iphone that I’d been using to read about quires – the set of eight leaves made from four folded parchments sheets often used in a medieval manuscript.  In my work as a freelance conservator, a colleague had just sent me a link for a new project I had taken on.

On my phone I tapped in a new search on

“Mom,” I said.  “It may be two states away, or three-and-a-half Great Lakes – but it’s only a ninety-minute flight from Pittsburgh to Chicago.  Flights leave at all hours of the day and night.  You could be there almost as quick as you could get to Alan’s apartment here.”

She hesitated.  Alan gave me a “thanks” look, but we held our expressions neutral, just like when we were kids and wanted to go somewhere special, like the Andy Warhol Museum in town.  It was best if we let Mom make up her own mind, if we didn’t push her too hard.

Glossed Gospels by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License
Glossed Gospels by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licens

“Well,” she said at last, “I will never let it be said that my children suffered from kakorrhaphiophobia.”  She pronounced it cack-or-aphio-phobia.  I had no idea what it meant.

“- That’s an irrational fear of failure, in case you’re wondering,” she added.

We were.



About this post

I was intrigued by the work of fellow blogger/writer athling2001, who posts words-of-the-day, thought-provoking quotations, and short fiction on the blog “A Writer’s Life.”  These word choices are so unusual that I was inspired to write a story to use as many of the most recent choices as possible.  Don’t you think that certain words can just beckon you to write something using them?  I do!

Here’s a quick glossary of the words-of-the-day I used, and there are also clickable links in the story to athling2001’s original post.

  • stramash – A tumult; fray; flight; struggle; row; disturbance.
  • carucate – The area of land able to be ploughed in a day by a team of eight oxen.
  • hydronym – the name of a river, lake, sea or any other body of water.
  • bilboes – an iron bar with sliding shackles, used to fasten prisoners’ ankles.
  • vibrissa – Each of the coarse bristlelike feathers growing around the gape of certain insectivorous birds that catch insects in flight.
  • quire – Four sheets of paper or parchment folded to form eight leaves, as in medieval manuscripts.


There are lots of writing exercises that suggest the writer create a work from a specific set of words.  For instance, coming up with two nouns, two adjectives, a location or place, a year, and a concept word (like “freedom”), and using those words in your story or poem.  Have you tried any of these types of exercises?  If so, do you use them to create “real” work, or just for practice?  Do you have a favorite?  Please feel free to leave a comment about what you think.

11 thoughts on “Three and a Half Great Lakes Away

  1. Oh wow! You had me chuckling here. I was clicking on the links the whole time while reading. So, is it awesome to have your mom as the walking dictionary? I didn’t know any of the words. So cool. I am now following the blog. I must improve my vocabulary if I am to write the good stuff. 🙂 Thanks so much for this. It is so interesting. And you and your brothers are just so cool. I must say your mom, too. That phobia word is just best! I can’t type it now unless I go back to the post and copy and paste here. Ha-ha. Really cool. Much love and hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Anne, thanks for your comment, I love to hear your thoughts! These words from athling2001’s blog are really unusual (at least for me, a native English speaker and a Ph.D.!), so don’t worry if you don’t have them in your vocabulary! I thought it was definitely fun how it turned out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You did create a wonderful entertaining article incorporating all those words – it’s brilliant! Always a pleasure for me to read your work. Much love to you, Theresa. And warm hugs 🤗💖

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So funny, that little piece. Surprising, though, when something you like comes out of an artificial structure you set for yourself. One of my favorite exercises is writing a story in which each sentence starts with the next letter of the alphabet. – And, you have to use at least one sentence fragment (incomplete sentence). – And, one sentence should be at least 100 words long! I always find the results surprisingly creative, partly because the “next work starts with a C” helps you use a different phrasing than you might have by default. – Maybe I’ll share one of these in a future blog post! have a great day!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh wow! Sounds like a real challenge. I’m already feeling intimidated. 😀 Please do share them. I’d love to read them and maybe get inspired. 🙂 You have a fabulous day and week. I had technology issues the whole weekend. But all sorted now. Yay! I’ll be completing my Friday the 13th Fiction way after the Friday the 13th. Haha.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, Anne, I’m sorry to hear you had technology isses. 😦 I might try one of these “alphabet stories” this week, and yes, I’ll post it! 🙂 Looking forward to your next fiction post! ::hugs::


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s