March 18, 2011
The college I went to had a large theater, to go with its large theater department. The seating area was divided by broad steps that led to the exits. All the theater people called each section with the steps a "vom", which was short for "vomitorium". I was told they got this name back in the late sixties when the theater department put on a production of Peter Weiss’s The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis de Sade. You can tell it’s a German play because pretty much everything you need to know is crammed into the title, and in the original that title is all one word. "If it wasn’t for us Americans all these people would be speaking German." And I said, "Yes, I’m sure these Austrians appreciate that." Anyway, in putting on the play the head of the theater department decided to do something radical and turned the entire theater into an asylum and had most of the students live in it as inmates. Okay, technically this wasn’t that radical, since most theater departments are already like asylums that are run by the inmates, but that’s another story.
At the end of the play the "inmates" – who had very limited access to sanitation – crawled through the audience. This caused some audience members to vomit into the voms. At least that’s how the story went, but even from the beginning I had a gut feeling it wasn’t completely true. And I got even more suspicious when I learned that in every theater the section that contains the steps leading to the seats is called a vomitorium. There’s something to think about the next time you’re in a theater and making your way to your seat, although if you’ve heard that a "vomitorium" is a room the Romans went to when they wanted to throw up so they could keep eating huge feasts you’ve heard wrong. Yes, the Romans did eat a lot of things you’d think would make anyone throw up, but taste is in the tongue of the beholder, and larks’ tongues, otters’ noses and ocelot spleens were just the Roman equivalent of popcorn and junior mints. In ancient Rome a vomitorium was the same thing it is now: the section of a theater or amphitheater with steps. I’m not sure how the term got shortened into vomit, or how vomit came to mean, well, vomit. Maybe someone thought of their stomach as a big theater and there was a sudden mass exodus when, after eating some popcorn and ocelot spleens someone in the "audience" yelled "Fire!" There’s something to think about the next time you’re enjoying an elegant evening at the theater.
Fortunately the vomitorium can be rescued from its unsavory association by the numerous synonyms we have for vomit. There’s barf, puke, purge, throw up, upchuck, hurl, spew, retch, regurgitate, blow chow, blow chowder, blow chunks, toss your cookies, toss your lunch, do the technicolor yawn, drive the porcelain bus, ralph, call Ralph on the porcelain phone, experience reverse peristalsis, and shout at your shoes. The Australians call it chunder, the French call it vomir, the Russians call it rvota, and the Germans have a word that’s forty-eight letters long and has pretty much everything you need to know crammed into it. I once knew a guy who told me he found throwing up to be a pleasant experience. I don’t know anything pleasant about it. It’s not like pulling off a scab where you have a few seconds of excruciating pain followed by a massive endorphin wave. The only pleasant thing about throwing up is when it’s over, although even then you still usually have to get past the dry heaves. And I realize that, if you’re still reading, this has been pretty unpleasant. I’m sorry. I just had to get it out of my system.