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cynosure. The center of attention or attraction or something that provides guidance or direction as a “guiding star” might.reference 1

This is not likely to be nominated for Word of the Year. So antiquated is it that, aside from proper names of ships, corporations, race horses, and the like, it appeared only three times in the New York Times during the 20th century. The most recent was in 1960 in a short piece about a controversy surrounding the adoption of a foster child: “By yesterday the little ranch house here had become a cynosure of attention.”reference 2 The careful reader will note that the correspondent (or the copy editor) lacked confidence in his readers' knowledge of the word's meaning: hence the addition of the redundant “attention.”

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spacer the constellation kynosoura
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Sirius may be The Dog Star, but Polaris has dog origins as well. The ancient Phoenicians did not call the Little Dipper Ursa Minor, as we do. Rather they referred to it as Kynosoura (kynosure), meaning dog's tail.” (cyno=dog; uro=tail)reference 3 At the tip of that tail was the north star, today referred to as Polaris. So at first, a cynosure was simply a navigational aid. Indeed, one of the previously alluded to articles in the Times uses the term to describe Admiral Byrd's use of the Southern Cross as his cynosure when trekking through Antarctica.

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excerpt from a painting of John Milton spacer
figure 3

The term came to more loosely refer to something that attracts attention by its interest, beauty, brilliance, etc. The OED cites Milton's L'Allegro (published in 1645) as an early example.

Towers and battlements it sees
Bosomed high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some beauty lies,
The cynosure of neighbouring eyes.reference 4

In A. Wilson Verity's commentary on the poem, he notes “Milton's mythology, like his landscapes, is eclectic. He picks out from classical mythology just what suits his purpose and treats it in his own way.”reference 5 By extension, we might infer that Milton adopted this more metaphoric meaning of this Greek word on the spot. But then, Verity also states that the use of cynosure to refer more literally to the north star was obsolete by the late nineteenth century.reference 6

1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed from http://dictionary.oed.com.

 

 

2. Dean, Clarence. 1960. Messages Pour in for Foster Girl, 4. New York Times, Mar 9, 33. Accessed Jul 23 2009 from http:// select.nytimes.com/ mem/ archive/ pdf?res= FA0C15FA355C 16738DDDA 90994DB40 5B808AF1D3.

 

 

3. The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Milton, John, and A. Wilson Verity. 1891. Milton's Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, L'allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press. 16.

5. Ibid. 65.

6. Ibid. 80.

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About the illustrations: Figure 1 shows photographers surrounding General David Petraeus as he prepares to testify before the Senate in April, 2008. It appears that he is the center of attention as he adjusts his nameplate. Photographer: Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Courtesy of AP, by subscription.

Figure 2 is not the official Greek or Phoenician constellation Kynosoura. In fact, I could find no renderings of this astronomical dog's tail, so I made it up.

Figure 3 is an excerpt from Delacroix's painting Milton Dictates to his Daughters. The image is in the public domain.

see also: dog star; dog days of summer Last updated: July 24, 2009
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