Monday, April 23, 2012

Today's word: vade mecum

Many priests keep their Bibles or encyclicals with them nearly all the time. It was noted by Abraham Lincoln's contemporaries that he always kept a copy of some Shakespearean play close to hand. And during China's Cultural Revolution from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, otherwise known as The Little Red Book, was printed in small versions just so Chinese people could carry it with them at all times.

So what do religious texts, Shakespearean dramas, and political collections have in common? In these examples, they are each a vade mecum.

Latin for "go with me," a vade mecum is something a person regularly carries with them, or specifically a printed manual of some sort.

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest takes place partly at the Enfield Tennis Academy. Because it is a sports academy, and its students compete worldwide, it is subject to certain rules and regulations, one of which is the occasional urinalysis of the entire student population.

The students of E.T.A. being what they are, few of them could actually pass a urine drug test. But fear not, the capitalistic Mr. Axford and Mr. Pemulis are always available to sell small vials of clean urine to those who have the ready cash. Having the clean urine is only half the battle, though. Making sure it gets into the specimen bottle unnoticed can cause some problems:
A Doctor Examining Urine. Trophime Bigot.
"The tests show that your urine contains high concentrations of piss.."
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the entrance to the male stall-area, the ephebic*-looking O.N.A.N.T.A.** toxicologist rarely even looks up from his clipboard, but the square-faced nurse can be a problem over on the female side, because every so often she'll want the stall door open during production. With Jim Struck handling published-source plagiarism and compressed iteration and Xerography, Pemulis also offers, at a reasonable cost, a small vade mecumish pamphlet detailing several methods for dealing with this contingency.
(p. 212)

Aside from your wallet, your phone, and your marbles, what are your vade mecums?

* Another good word, ephebic. An ephebus is a young boy, so ephebic means having the characteristics of a young boy. So the toxicologist is no grizzled, bare-pated, big-eared, bifocal-wearing fogey, but someone who is (or at least looks) too young to really give a damn.

** The Organization of North American Nations Tennis Association. In the book, ONAN comprises the United States, Mexico, and (begrudgingly) Canada. The abbreviation ONAN is itself a not-so-subtle play on words, reminding us of the word onanism, which refers to masturbation and the old coitus interruptus. (See Genesis 38:6-10)
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