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Cynosure

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Cynosure

Postby Dr. Goodword » Fri Aug 10, 2012 10:20 pm

• cynosure •


Pronunciation: si-nê-shyur • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. The North Star or Ursa Minor, its constellation. 2. Something that attracts attention by its brilliance. 3. Anything that provides guidance or leadership, a 'guiding star'.

Notes: Today's Good Word is one of the most graceful in the English language; use it for its sheer decorative effect in your conversations. Its only relative is cynosural, an adjective not quite as lovely as its mother. Thomas Carlyle wrote in The French Revolution (1837), "Meanwhile the fair young Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty, the cynosure of all eyes."

In Play: Cynosures first and foremost must be striking and stand out: "When Christ was born, Rome was the cynosure of the Western world." This implies that it was bright, brilliant, and widely imitated. Things smaller than Rome may be cynosures, too: "Alison Wonderland was the cynosure of the soiree from the moment she lilted into the room in her lustrous white gown hemmed with a striking furbelow."

Word History: The origin of today's Good Word presents a stark contrast to its glitter and glamour. Cynosure is a hand-me-down from the French descendant of a Latin borrowing of Greek kynosoura "dog-tail," based on kuon, kynos "dog" + oura "tail", the Greek name of Ursa Minor. The Proto-Indo-European root kuon- made it to English as hound while Latin converted it to canis "dog", from which English snitched canine and canary. Yes, canary: canaries were named for their point of origin, the Canary Islands, which comes from the Latin Canariae Insulae "Dog Islands". (Our cynosure today is Mark Bailey, who suggested it and who is one of the select circle of Grand Panjandra in the Alpha Agora.)
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby LukeJavan8 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 11:22 pm

Interesting word, I looked it up in the dictionary.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Jeff hook » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:39 am

I agree with Dr. Beard that this is a beautiful word. I've never used it although I've always been aware of it and I've always thought it was erudite. Dr. Beard's citation of the use of the word by Thomas Carlyle shows the type of usage which always impressed me favorably but Dr. Beard's etymology states clearly that "The origin of today's Good Word presents a stark contrast to its glitter and glamour." He explains that this English word originates in the Greek phrase for "dog's tail"! I don't think dogs' tails can be categorized as "elegant" or "refined" or "distinguished"!

Even in its original astronomical usage the Greek phrase seems not to have been impressive: it was only used to refer to the constellation "Ursa Minor," which I think is also known as "The Little Dipper." (I guess the "handle" of "The Little Dipper" looked like a curving dog's tail.) It may be important that this apparent original astronomical use of the Greek phrase doesn't seem to have been qualitative or judgmental; it was merely descriptive. When we see a curving line of stars described as a "dog's tail" we don't think about the qualities of dogs' tails, we only think about their appearances, and this description seems to fit.

A problem seems to develop when this phrase is used to refer to an object which is held in high esteem. The literal meaning of the phrase seems to conflict so powerfully with the qualities of the esteemed object that this phrase doesn't seem to be appropriate for that use. I prefer to use words in ways which are consistent with the words' original meanings or with the meanings of the words' antecedents. As an overall rule of thumb this approach seems to work well; I value the insights which I can obtain from words' etymologies. I'm not willing to accept a complete reversal of the meaning of the word! Should I be more flexible in this case? I can't! This seems to be a non-starter!

Dr. Beard explains that the Greek phrase was also used for the North Star, which seems to be included in the constellation Ursa Minor. The use of the phrase as a reference to the star may be categorized as an "expansion" of the original use. Perhaps linguists categorize this "expansion" of a term of reference as a type of "association." The first usage was literal and descriptive. The later use of the phrase to refer to the North Star was merely abstract, based on the association of the star with the constellation. The literal meaning of the phrase was completely inconsistent with the qualities of the star. The phrase's literal meaning had "fit" its use as a mere description of the appearance of the constellation but the phrase's meaning clashes with the qualities of the star. Doesn't that "clash of meaning" disqualify the phrase as a reference to the star or to any object which is compared to the star? I think it does.

The North Star may be astronomically important. It may be an important reference point which is used for "celestial reckoning" (jargon?). Are the terms "pole star" and "lode star" also used for stars which are important for "celestial navigation"? Are those phrases synonyms of "North Star"? The North Star may be one of the brightest and most prominent stars. It may be beautiful and elegant. It may seem to be ideal. As Thomas Carlyle's usage suggests, the North Star may attract attention and admiration. I'd want to use this elegant word "cynosure" in this sense but the literal meaning of the word is "dog's tail"! Using this "inelegant" word because it's thought to impart elegance and distinction seems to be naive and unaware! Did Carlyle mean to say, "Meanwhile the fair young Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty, the dog's tail of all eyes"?! He didn't!

I'm disappointed that this beautiful word, which seems at first glance to be so elegant, and so erudite, seems to have such an undistinguished, unappealing meaning. "Dog's tail" brings "the cynosure of all eyes" down to earth dramatically! Carlyle's usage is a perfect example of the type of usage which always impressed me favorably. Am I wrong in thinking that I shouldn't use this word because the literal meaning of its antecedents is almost the direct opposite of the current sense of the word? I don't think so.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby LukeJavan8 » Mon Aug 13, 2012 1:13 pm

Huge reply/post.
Wish I could read it.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Perry Lassiter » Mon Aug 13, 2012 1:32 pm

Jeff, about your reluctance to believe words can reverse meaning. In King James, Paul writes that he wanted to come see the Romans, but "was let hitherto." he meant that he was prevented. Te word "let" went to the exact opposite.

Re: ursa major and minor, the great bear and the little bear, I'm not sure where they picked up those Latin apellations. However, I do know that in most ancient societies, dogs were feral andv not pets. My guess - and it is strictly a guess - is that some group thought they saw a dog, not a bear, so for them it was canis, not ursa.

My further, more educated, hunch is that aesthetics had little to do with etymological evolution. A lot of folk etymology has edged into the mainstreram.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Jeff hook » Mon Aug 13, 2012 3:28 pm

Perry:

I guess I believe that this word has reversed or at least changed its meaning, to the extent that it's no longer used to mean "dog's tail." I'm just saying I'm reluctant to use it in that sense. I can see how this happened, but the end result seems to be ridiculous, inappropriate, and "just plain wrong"!

1. It seems reasonable to suggest that the curved "handle" of the "Little Dipper" looked like a dog's tail.

2. I think we started to "go astray" when the "dog's tail" phrase was also applied to The North Star, which is the most prominent star in the "Little Dipper"/"Ursa Minor" constellation. That single point, one star, doesn't look like a "dog's tail." It's merely the most prominent star in a constellation which does look like a dog's tail. The use of the "dog's tail" phrase both for the entire constellation and for one star from the constellation seems to me to have been sloppy and inappropriate.

3. We went even further astray when we used the "dog's tail" phrase to refer to the qualities which we saw in the beautiful star. This doesn't "work." Dogs' tails aren't comparable to stars. Saying it's so doesn't make it so. A "dog's tail" isn't a symbol of our highest ideals. It's just a dog's tail...

4. If "cynosure" originated in a Greek phrase which meant "ideal" or "guiding light" or "highest principle" then its current use would seem to me to be appropriate. That's how it's used now, but, as Dr. Beard points out, it really only means "dog's tail"!

Ain't nuthin' fancy 'bout a dog's tail!
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Perry Lassiter » Mon Aug 13, 2012 4:45 pm

Never heard Polaris called the dog's tail, but often the "dog star," not the same, but possibly a reference to the dog's tail.

A respected New Testament prof used to say (controversially, of course) the words don't have meanings, they have usages.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Jeff hook » Mon Aug 13, 2012 7:15 pm

Perry:

Perry Lassiter wrote:...possibly a reference to the dog's tail...


"Possibly"? The first line of Dr. Beard's original text was:

Dr. Goodword wrote:Meaning: 1. The North Star or Ursa Minor, its constellation.


Dr. Beard's Word History explains:
Dr. Goodword wrote:Cynosure is a hand-me-down from the French descendant of a Latin borrowing of Greek kynosoura "dog-tail," based on kuon, kynos "dog" + oura "tail", the Greek name of Ursa Minor.


Dr. Beard explains that "cynosure" is used as a name for the North Star. He also explains that "cynosure" originates in a Greek phrase which means "dog tail." I'm not saying anyone refers to the "North Star" as the "dog tail" but I am pointing out the original meaning of the phrase which is used now to refer to the star...
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby LukeJavan8 » Mon Aug 13, 2012 7:26 pm

Nothing
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Audiendus » Mon Aug 13, 2012 8:14 pm

Jeff hook wrote:The North Star may be one of the brightest and most prominent stars. It may be beautiful and elegant. It may seem to be ideal. As Thomas Carlyle's usage suggests, the North Star may attract attention and admiration. I'd want to use this elegant word "cynosure" in this sense but the literal meaning of the word is "dog's tail"! Using this "inelegant" word because it's thought to impart elegance and distinction seems to be naive and unaware!

According to Wikipedia's list, the North Star (Polaris) is only the 45th brightest star in the sky. Its prominence lies not so much in its brightness as in its position very close to the north celestial pole, i.e. the point around which all other stars appear to rotate in the northern hemisphere. But this also makes the constellation Ursa Minor (the dog's tail) prominent as a whole (since it rotates in a small circle), so it is not inappropriate to use the word "cynosure" (dog's tail) to denote something that attracts attention. A cynosure is prominent like the Ursa Minor dog's-tail, not any old dog's-tail.

But what about the use of "cynosure" to refer specifically to the North Star? Well, I see this as a synecdoche – using the name of the whole to refer to a part. Someone might say "The dog's tail is a prominent star", to mean "The well-known dog's-tail star [i.e. the North Star] is a prominent star", just as one might say "Andromeda is a spiral galaxy" to mean "The galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda is a spiral galaxy".

By the way, the Dog Star (Sirius) is different from the North Star (it is in a different constellation).
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Jeff hook » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:47 pm

Audiendus:

Thanks for adding the astronomical clarification which I'd not obtained. You've pointed out that:

1. "Cynosure" is used to refer to the "North Star," NOT to the "Dog Star." The North Star is also known as Polaris. The Dog Star is also known as Sirius.

2. The North Star isn't distinguished by its brightness but by its location and, it seems, by its use in celestial navigation.

3. I'm guessing that your comments about the North Star may suggest the star is thought to have admirable or valued characteristics, such as reliability. I think I've seen the expression "constant as the North Star." I can imagine mariners would have appreciated the star's dependability. After all, their lives depended on their use of the star for navigation. (I'm guessing Sirius may have been given its alternate name "Dog Star" due to its constancy. I'm thinking of the faithfulness of dogs, but that doesn't seem to be the case. See the post-script below my signature.)

4. Your comments also explain that the star's position near the north celestial pole and the small circle of rotation of its constellation give the star visual prominence which it doesn't achieve by brightness.

All of these appreciated astronomical details seem to suggest how the star could have been seen as an exemplar and how the star's name would be used as a synonym for the star's admirable qualities.

There's only one problem: The literal meaning of the star's name is "dog tail," even though the English form of that Greek compound word is beautiful and elegant!

Isn't "dog tail" "bad" enough?! What if, somehow, the constellation had been named long ago in some language other than English as "decaying corpse"? Thanks also for contributing what may be the correct linguistic terminology ("synecdoche") for the process which I tried to identify as "expansion" and "association." If, by that process, the original name of the constellation were applied to the star, would Thomas Carlyle's meaning have been: "Meanwhile the fair young Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty, the decaying corpse of all eyes"?!

Am I just a "stick in the mud," or does our language "fall apart" when we ignore details like this?

Jeff Hook

I followed your good example and checked Wikipedia. Their page for Sirius is at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sirius

The star seems to have been associated in ancient Egypt with Isis and with Osiris and with the annual flooding of the Nile. The name "Sirius" is said by my paper copy of the AHD4 to be derived from a Greek word {seirios} for "burning." Wikipedia explains:

The ancient Greeks observed that the appearance of Sirius heralded the hot and dry summer, and feared that it caused plants to wilt, men to weaken, and women to become aroused. Due to its brightness, Sirius would have been noted to twinkle more in the unsettled weather conditions of early summer. To Greek observers, this signified certain emanations which caused its malignant influence. Anyone suffering its effects was said to be astroboletos (ἀστροβόλητος) or "star-struck". It was described as "burning" or "flaming" in literature. The season following the star's appearance came to be known as the Dog Days of summer. The inhabitants of the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea would offer sacrifices to Sirius and Zeus to bring cooling breezes, and would await the reappearance of the star in summer. If it rose clear, it would portend good fortune; if it was misty or faint then it foretold (or emanated) pestilence. Coins retrieved from the island from the 3rd century BC feature dogs or stars with emanating rays, highlighting Sirius' importance. The Romans celebrated the heliacal setting of Sirius around April 25, sacrificing a dog, along with incense, wine, and a sheep, to the goddess Robigo so that the star's emanations would not cause wheat rust on wheat crops that year.


The name "Dog Star" doesn't seem to have been given to the star because the star was thought to be as faithful as a dog.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Philip W Hudson » Wed Aug 15, 2012 10:36 pm

"Goodness gracious me," (as Aunt Hortensia was wont to say), “such pedantry.” And I thought I was a pedant. Etymologies are very interesting but they do not really give the word its definition. Perry's word "let" is a good example of words not keeping original meanings. "Let ball" in tennis holds something of the old definition. Now how about “prevent”? Perry, in your role as KJV expert, please tell us what it means when the Apostle Paul says, "we shall not prevent them who are asleep." (1Thes 4:15)

Cynosure is a beautiful word to me. No one beats Thomas Carlyle in choosing and loving beautiful words, EXCEPT for the Good Doctor. I believe it was Carlyle who said he must learn Spanish because any language that can call a butterfly a mariposa is definitely a beautiful language. Mariposa's etymology is "(the Virgin) Mary reposing" which in itself is a beautiful thought.

Now that Andrew has got me back on Alpha Agora, things are beautiful. But it is not true that "everything is beautiful in its own way."

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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Jeff hook » Thu Aug 16, 2012 3:29 am

Etymologies are very interesting but they do NOT really give the word its definition.


Does anyone else think they SHOULD?!
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby call_copse » Thu Aug 16, 2012 6:44 am

Interesting discussion - I've picked up a few things anyhow, and am ALWAYS up for both discussion of the stellar, and pedantry. I'm off on holiday to more peaceful realms (Cornwall, UK) soon and looking forward to using Google Sky Map on my mobile to review the stars in a place where there is less light pollution.

I actually enjoy the almost ironic ways etymology progresses. It keeps things a little fun in my opinion.
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Re: CYNOSURE

Postby Perry Lassiter » Thu Aug 16, 2012 4:52 pm

I will research Philip's question about "prevent," but I decline any sort of expert status on the KJV or any Bible stuff. The more I learn, the more I need to learn.

In regard to the relation between etymology and definition, that's at least 50-75% of what we discuss on these pages. I think the idea is that the meaning develops over time, and that knowledge helps us to understand the words we use.

In studying ancient languages etymology is essential. In Biblical studies there is a famous series called the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament with about 12 encyclopedic volumes. The most important words for translation and theology may run to 10 or more small print pages. They discuss the usage in classical Greek and in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. Only then do they discuss the word in its NT usage. There is a similar series for the OT. Why is it important? I'll give one classic example from the King James Version, Philip. In 1 John 2 he calls Jesus the "propitiation" for our sins. This word led to a whole theory of the meaning of the cross. But the newer translations use the word "atonement," which is a Greek word that means the same as the Hebrew "kippur" That word originally meant simple "cover" or "lid" in reference to the Ark of the Covenant. A monk in the 4th or 5th century invented the term "mercy seat," which some defend, but I abhor. You could translate the 1 John phrase, "He is the cover for our sins," but that is probably too weak in context as it could imply only shielding from sight, which John certainly did not mean. We have to do etymology in ancient languages because we can't ask Paul or John or any of those guys what they meant.
Last edited by Perry Lassiter on Thu Aug 16, 2012 8:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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