There’s even poetry in the knee, the homeliest of joints. Take the meniscus (pl. menisci), rooted in the Greek meniskos, “lunar crescent,” a diminutive of mene, “moon.” The menisci in my right knee have been waxing and waning. This morning, my orthopedic surgeon (Dr. Richard Nixon) will drill three holes in the joint (like a bowling ball), get a closer look with a camera at the two tears in my menisci – “the crescent-shaped fibrocartilaginous structures situated between the articular surfaces of . . . [the] knee,” according to the OED – and make the necessary repairs. The goal is to walk again without a Walter Brennan limp, and to stop falling down. “Meniscus,” I’ve learned, is a well-known word among athletes and their fans, as the former are forever tearing theirs. As a non-sports-fan, it sounded to me like the name of the guy who owns the diner.
“Meniscus” is one of those richly metaphorical words that are a gift from English to us. The OED’s first entry: “a figure or object shaped like a crescent moon; (occas.) the crescent moon itself.” A croissant or a sickle might be called a meniscus. The next meaning is borrowed from optics: “a lens that is convex on one side and concave on the other.” And the next, from physics: “The convex or concave upper surface of a body of liquid resulting from the effects of surface tension and capillarity where the surface meets the walls of a container.” And here is my favorite, labeled by the dictionary as “Zool.”: “Either of two fluid-filled invaginations near the proboscis of a thorny-headed worm; a lemniscus.”
As I said, my injury has nothing to do with sports, as I’ve never played them. No, the etiology is less dramatic and more commonplace: age, sixty-four years of walking, from toddlerhood to the golden years. The best description of this process that I’ve encountered is by James Joyce, in the “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses, the subsection titled “A Collision Ensues.” Bloom visits the offices of the Freeman newspaper, where he has an unexpected encounter with Lenehan:
“The bell whirred again as he rang off. He came in quickly and bumped against Lenehan who was struggling up with the second tissue.
“— Pardon, Monsieur, Lenehan said, clutching him for an instant and making a grimace.
“— My fault, Mr Bloom said, suffering his grip. Are you hurt? I’m in a hurry.
“— Knee, Lenehan said.
“He made a comic face and whined, rubbing his knee:
“— The accumulation of the Anno Domini."