I vomited at least 700 times during the first four months of my pregnancy. Let me do the math for you: That’s an average of almost six pukes a day, or one upchuck every four hours—around the clock. For me, though, it worked out to be more like 10 pukes a day, then a blessed day of digestive rest, and then 12 hurls the next day. I don’t resent it, of course; four months of puking prepared me for many more months of being puked upon by my child.
Constant vomiting is difficult in part because it is so isolating. If you were too drunk at a keg party, a good friend might have held back your hair as you spewed into the host’s toilet. Aside from that, no one will venture into the bathroom and be with you in those trying times. My husband attempted it, but a primordial instinct forced him to turn away as I let loose. If not just for the grossness of proximity to it, vomiting is also isolating because it’s impossible, for English speakers at least, to accurately describe the experience. American English offers its users many words for the act of puking. We all will, in our most common moments, use puke, hurl, honk, retch, spew, barf, ralph, hurl, heave, or upchuck, and at our most clinical (say, when we’re talking to our doctor), regurgitate, expel, throw up, spit up, emesis, or be sick. Those who barf on a regular basis—say, those who can’t hold their liquor—have made an art out of vomit language: driving the porcelain bus, blowing chunks, tossing your cookies, losing your lunch, talking to ralph on the big white phone, and, new to me, singing psychedelic praises to the depths of the china bowl.
These words are helpful, fun, and sometimes mind-blowing, but none describe the vomit itself. Beer, orange juice, cottage cheese, meat, bile, and water all make for very different pukes. Pregnant women and other frequent hurlers could, perhaps, elicit more sympathy and care were they to more clearly explain what they are vomiting. On the international scene, Americans would appear more intelligent were we to demonstrate the superior linguistic innovation needed to describe such experiences. We may be falling behind in science and math, but I think crass linguistics just might be our niche.
So here is the beginning of my dictionary of vomit. It is based largely on my own experience, and I acknowledge it as just a small step forward. Notably absent are entries about drunken vomit and vomit related to various diseases. These areas should be explored by experts, which I am not. I’ll just offer what I know: the chunks and fluids produced by pregnancy and mild food poisoning. I sincerely hope other expert retchers will use this vocabulary, develop and extend it, and so contribute to our culture as a people, and spread our unique American vocabulary around the world.
False Emesis (commonly known as dry heaves): When the body is too weak to really puke, it retches to no effect: totally dry, not even water or bile. False emesis can be identified early by the strength of muscle contractions, and if correctly diagnosed, you can just stay in bed or watching TV while openly retching…nothing at all. If your self-diagnosis is wrong, however, you’ll be sorry. Even if you look yourself straight in the eyes in the mirror and sternly say “Stop playing!” you cannot stop false emesis. You just have to ride it out.
Sleep spew: Being able to recognize this rare form of vomit literally could save your sheets. During my pregnancy, I sometimes woke up out of a deep sleep fully convulsing. I would then say in my head, “You don’t have to throw up. You’re just walking to the bathroom. Just walking. It’s OK.” Mind control works for about 15 to 20 seconds, just long enough to get to the sink.
Food-refusal vomit: When the body immediately refuses food, the puke consists of that food in its original form, but moistened. When pregnant, food-refusal vomit may, in my experience, be produced up to 90 minutes after ingestion, though times may vary for others. If you are experiencing bouts of food-refusal vomiting, it is wise to choose foods based on the ease of vomiting them later. Granola, for example, is dry and sharp, while cheerios are mild and smooth. Tomato-based soups produce burning hot acid, yet clear soups swim upstream like salmon. While coffee produces the same sour result as tomato soup, black and green tea bring forth only a not-entirely-unpleasant warmth that rises quickly from belly to mouth. Meat is heavy, requiring strong muscle contractions to work against gravity, but vegetables are slippery and light. Despite what I once surmised, eating sweets does not make food-refusal vomit taste better, for our taste buds for sweet flavors are located on the tip of our tongues, and thus sweetness cannot be detected when food enters the mouth from the wrong end.
Waterretch: Water is a vomit-trigger for many pregnant women. It’s a simple vomit, though the first few times will be mixed with the bitter taste of bile. If you’re the kind of fool I was, you will continue sipping water, thinking that your body will prefer the third or fourth swallow. The third and fourth vomit will not contain any bile. This is the only vomit that tastes precisely the same in both directions. Though it seems easy and trouble-free, waterretch is not to be trifled with. Dehydration sets in quickly and will land you in the hospital.
Bile hurl: Bile hurl contains nothing but slippery and bright yellow stomach acid. It is a relatively weak vomit, though it usually arrives at the end of a series of more aggressive pukes. It looks fairly innocent, but bile hurl has a powerful taste because your bitter-flavor taste buds are on the back of your tongue, a.k.a., the vomit entrance ramp. Bile hurl also eats away at the throat, making the voice scratchy or absent altogether. Bile hurl is sometimes accompanied by a weak voice whispering, “I’m so sick.”
Orally contained vomit: The frequency of orally contained vomit is determined by the modesty of the puker. When my pregnant friend Julie went to work, for example, she was separated from the bathroom by a long hallway. She puked in her mouth and calmly walked to the bathroom, never revealing her state of disorder to co-workers. I, on the other hand, would rather puke in my hands and carry it to the bathroom for all to see. I suppose that’s the difference between me and Julie.
Rotten ralph: Rotten ralph is a non-pregnancy vomit that is produced by mild food poisoning. An especially potent form, in my experience, is meat cooked with tomato-based sauce. The throat and back of the tongue are especially sensitive to the unique taste of rotten, partially digested meat, and the acid of the sauce adds a piquant throat burn. Ground-beef enchiladas and picnic chicken marinated in tomato sauce provide me with two more outstanding examples. Frequently originating at state fairs and potlucks, rotten ralph is rarely discovered alone. Usually it is part of a double-orifice elimination.
Surprise spew. Sometimes it seems that, despite weeks of daily vomiting, this day will be the day it ends. You eat something, it stays down for 15 minutes, and you’re so pleased that you keep eating. You eat numerous foods, anything you want, some Doritos, a Ding Dong, milk, and a peach. Then the body sabotages the mind with a surprise spew, something you never saw—or felt—coming. Worse yet, it’s frequently embarrassing, such as the time I shot a half-digested apple onto a wall in my doctor’s office. Other times, its effects are simply mystifying, like the time I had a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a Coke, then surprise spewed the sandwich, the color from the Coke (somehow it separates from the liquid), and some lime-green bits I could never identify. I still wonder what they could have been.