or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, October 06, 2006

Now That You Bring It Up...

So yesterday on Salon.com there was this article about foie gras and about how food police are trying to ban it and other foodstuffs. In the hostile and polarized letters section (I, being a repository of strange and useful information about such things as the age-old English predilection for odd and diverting foods called "sotilties", or "subtleties", had one published) was, eventually, a letter about the vomitorium.

Everyone knows what a vomitorium is, right? The room in the house to which those decadent Romans would retire during a feast so that they could egurgitate their meal and then return to eat even more? Everyone knows that.

And of course everyone is wrong. (I was, too. Once.) A vomitorium is, in fact, a passageway in an amphitheatre, so named because it can quickly move large quantities of patrons into and out of the theatre.

The word "vomitorium", or at least "vomit", calls to mind a part of the mammalian respiratory system called the vomeronasal organ: it's used the processing of certain kinds of scents, and if you've ever owned a cat, you've seen one in action. When a cat is avidly sniffing an especially interesting scent, it's pulling the fumes into its vomeronasal organ, and it does so by drawing air in through its mouth rather than its nose: the cat then generally sits there with its mouth open and its eyes glazed over, making it look stoned or blissed out or stupefied--your choice--so whatever it's doing with that organ that it isn't doing with its finely tuned nose, you know it's gotta be really great.

Since "vomere" is the Latin for "to vomit", and the vomeronasal organ is located in the nose, in proximity to the mouth where vomiting takes place, obviously the two words are somehow related. Except that they're not, at all. Fascinatingly, "vomer" is the Latin word for "ploughshare", and the vomeronasal organ--remember what I said yesterday about the names of body parts?--is so called because it's located in the nose (the "-nasal" part), and because it's a flat plate shaped like part of a plough (the "vomer-" part). There is, in fact, a part of the mammalian nasal apparatus called the vomer: it's part of the septum, the wall of cartilage that divides the nostrils.

The septum, by the way, gets its name from Latin "saepes", "fence", and that is quite enough for one day, I think.


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