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Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #15


Long-term readers of my blog will know that I object to over-scholarised notes in contemporary editions of classic literary texts. Nevertheless, there are times when the notes do tell you something interesting that you didn't know. I am currently reading Trollope's The Way We Live Now – which has only eleven pages of notes for a 760-page novel; an acceptable ratio, I'd say – and was pleased to come upon a gloss on the phrase "the cynosure of her eyes"Now, this is quite a well-known phrase and I didn't need a note to tell me what it meant; however, I was interested to learn that the word cynosure literally means the Pole Star. I don't need to know that to appreciate Trollope's novel, but I am glad to learn it all the same. 

Subsequent investigations tell me that the (North) Pole Star is a bright star in Ursa Minor and was known to the Ancient Greeks as kynosaura, meaning "dog's tail". (The Greek word for dog was kyon, from which we get the word cynic and, through a different route, the word canine.) Kynosaura eventually metamorphosed into cynosure, via Latin and French. 

So thanks to the editor, Frank Kermode. And, now, back to the novel...

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.


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