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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-12-13)

I have been mildly taken to task by someone with an e-mail address in Cambridge, England, for an omission in No 57 of this series. Unfortunately his letter has been swept away in a brisk tidying-up of my inbox, so I don’t know who he is, but I thank him, anyway – it’s good to know that someone actually reads this stuff.

In that article I wrote of “tectonic forces” relating to structural changes in the earth’s crust. That train of thought was started by a newspaper caption-writer who attributed new activity in the crater of Krakatau to “teutonic forces”, and after exonerating the Germans (Teutones) from blame I didn’t pursue the matter any further. However, as my Cambridge correspondent pointed out, I should have mentioned that the first meaning of “tectonic” is “relating to building”, and derives from the Greek word “tekton”, a builder or carpenter. Interestingly, the nearest Latin equivalent, “tectum”, means a roof, ceiling, cover or house; I seem to remember that there is a common root-word (Indo-European?) implying “cover”, that was the origin of both terms.

My attention was suddenly caught the other day by a TV rugby commentator who remarked that one of the English players then occupied in giving the South Africans a hiding had made himself “the cynosure of the English press by taking out the Queen’s grandmother Zara.” This young lady is of course the queen’s granddaughter, and it’s just possible that I misheard the man, but let’s pass on that one and look at the word “cynosure.”

In those faraway days when people used mildly obscure words, “cynosure” was sometimes confused with “sinecure”. “Sinecure” is defined by Chambers as “an office without work; a cushy job”, and derives from Latin “sine cura” – without care, which explains itself pretty well – (a job) without responsibility.

“Cynosure” is another matter – it needs some explanation. It means, as used above, “anything that strongly attracts attention or admiration” (Chambers). But its first meaning is “the constellation Ursa Minor, which contains in its tail the Pole-star” (Shorter OED). That explains the second meaning, because that star, Polaris, has been used as an aid to navigation since the earliest times and has therefore received a great deal of attention from sailors. But here’s the puzzle: Ursa Minor means “Little Bear”, in contrast to Ursa Major, the Great Bear; and “cynosure” is directly derived from the Greek “kynos oura, the dog’s tail.” As far as I can tell, these names have been in use since classical times.

Now there are indeed dogs among the stars –notably Canis Major and Canis Minor. But these two are well-known and significant constellations, neither of them anywhere near Polaris. So how is it possible that the tail of the Little Bear is called the dog’s tail? I have searched for enlightenment wherever I can, and for once I have to admit defeat. Perhaps the Ancient Greeks couldn’t tell a dog from a bear, which must have added a whole new dimension to bear-hunting. Especially for the dogs.

Changing the subject again, here’s a brief tribute to the excellent Rod Liddle, writing in the Spectator of 6 November 2004. He has come up with the concept of “deadwords… words which signify nothing.” He lists a few: “commitment, benchmark, outreach, progress…” and suggests that when a politician uses one of them you should “start counting your spoons.” And why are these words used, along with the associated HR (Human Resources) language? To avoid giving “an ordinary member of the public the slightest basis for political or personal grievance…No wonder [this language] has proved attractive to our politicians; they can talk for hours and nobody will turn a hair. Because it all means nothing.” Splendid stuff, Mr Liddle.

It is the night of 10 December 2004, and it is unlikely that I shall write again this year. If I may do so without giving anybody the slightest basis for political or personal grievance, I wish All Of You Out There a Merry Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year. And yes, keep an eye open for unusual stars; one of them might be significant.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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