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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: vade mecum

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun’s John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


You carry your cellphone everywhere, because it contains your telephone contacts, your email messages and email addresses, your calendar, and much of the essential information you require at work, at home, and on the road, where it may be feeding you driving directions. You feel naked and vulnerable when you are without it. It has become your vade mecum.

Latin carried such prestige for so long that bits and pieces of it were appropriated intact into English. Seventeenth-century English picked up vade mecum, literally “go with me,” to identify a manual or guidebook small enough to be carried about in a pocket, perhaps a Bible or prayer book.

Vade mecum (pronounced VAY-dee ME-kim or VAH-dee ME-kim) soon took on enlarged senses, literally as any book for ready reference, metaphorically something one is always with, such as a maxim governing behavior, or a constant companion.

Like your cellphone.

Example: D.W. Gade in “Weeds in Vermont as tokens of socioeconomic change,” Geographical Review, April 1991: “Seekers of alternative foodstuffs have embraced ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus’ by Euell Gibbons as their vade mecum.”

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