Building a vocabulary one new word at a time

Have you ever met a new, unusual word while reading and the next day or so met the same unusual word while reading something entirely different? This happened — again — to me a couple of days ago. The word ‘meiosis’ was so offbeat, so far from my usual vocabulary, its sudden popularity along with its meaning intrigued me,

This word first popped up as I read “My Beloved World”, the memoir written by Sonia Sotomayor, one of the nine chief justices of the U.S. supreme court.

Born in Puerto Rico, Sotomayor was raised first in New York City’s Brooklyn and later the Fort Apache area of the Bronx, Paul Newman’s movie precinct. Her mother, a practical nurse, was set on Sotomayor getting a good education to lift her above their poverty level and crime-riddled surroundings. So though money was scarce, Mom found a way to pay for a set of encyclopedia.

Sotomayor writes, “When the two big boxes labeled “Encyclopaedia Britannica” arrived, it was Christmas come early. I sat on the floor with my brother surrounded by piles of books like explorers at the base of Everest. Each of the 24 volumes was a doorstop, the kind of book you’d expect to see in a library, never in someone’s home and certainly not 24 of them, including a whole separate book just for the index! As I turned the densely set onionskin pages at random, I found myself wandering the world’s geography, pondering molecules like daisy chains, marveling at the physiology of the eye. I was introduced to flora and fauna, to the microscopic structures of cells, to mitosis, meiosis…”

And there it was. Meiosis. An unusual word I’d never seen before.

Encyclopaedia Britannica I was familiar with. I bought a complete, newly published set in 1961 when I lived on the fifth floor of a walk-up brownstone on West 85th Street in Manhattan. Mine arrived in three boxes – two containing books, the third a two-shelf bookcase for them. Each volume weighed five pounds, with an average of 1,100 plus pages. Despite my excellent physical condition, by the time I hauled those books, four at a time, to my room I was tuckered.

Reading Sotomayor’s memoir in bed I had no handy dictionary. I guessed at the word’s meaning and kept reading. What were the chances I’d ever need to comprehend this word?

Yet a day or so later scanning “The New Yorker” I found this article headline:

“Are Tiny Books a Sign of the Twee-ification of Literary Culture?” A tiny book smaller than a 1940 postage stamp illustrated the article.

I couldn’t imagine the article being of interest to me beyond learning the meaning of twee, which sounded pornographic. But one of my brothers, who studied watch repair as a hobby in his younger years, has always enjoyed fine print, even penned articles in letters so tiny they defied my eyesight without a magnifying glass.

But before emailing the article to him, (might twee be a naughty word?) I scrolled through it, and what did I find on the second to last line of the third paragraph? The word meiosis.

My computer explains it thusly: “In biology, a type of cell division that results in four daughtercells each with half the number of chromosomes of the parent cell, as in the production of gametes and plant spores.” Why did I suspect sex might lurk in this unusual word?

After two close encounters, meiosis is a term I’ll easily remember if it shows up again.

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