Cynosure and Sinecure

When I was in junior high school, I think it was grade eight, we had regular vocabulary drills. Our grammar book had a section on words that we should know; there was also a list of pairs and triples of words that could be easily confused. I remember just one of these pairs, which for some reason stuck in my mind—cynosure and sinecure. These words sound similar; the initial “c” in cynosure is soft, but the “c” in sinecure is hard. A cynosure is something which attracts attention, and the word also means the constellation Ursa Minor, or Small Bear, which includes the Polestar, which used to be used for navigation. The word comes from two ancient Greek words—kyôn (genitive kynos), meaning “dog” and oura, meaning “tail”; the Greeks thought the constellation looked like a dog rather than a bear. The word “cynosure” is not a modern invention based on ancient words—it was a word in ancient Greek with the same meanings it has in modern English. The English word “cynic” comes from kynikos, “of or like a dog”, after a school of ancient philosophers, the Cynics. According to well-known but unlikely etymology, the Cynics were given their name because they were in some way doglike. A more likely etymology notes that the founder of the school, Antisthenes, taught in a location in Athens called the Kynosarges. The meaning of Kynosarges is lost in time, but the Athenians thought it might have meant “place of the white (or swift) dog”.

A sinecure is a job that doesn’t require any work. This word combines two Latin words—“sine”, “without”, and “cura”, “care” or “attention”. It comes from an ecclesiastical term beneficium sine cura, which meant an ecclesiastical office which paid a salary but doesn’t require “cure of souls”, that is, any kind of actual attention to the good of the members of the church. A beneficium sine cura could be held even in absentia. In modern English it means any job which doesn’t require work. The Latin word “cura” looks a lot like the English “care”, but the similarity is accidental: “care” comes from Proto-German, not from Latin. The Latin “cura” gives the nouns “cure” and also the noun “curate”—a curate is someone who is responsible for the well-being of the people in a parish. The verb “to curate” comes from the same Latin word, but it means to be in charge of a museum or gallery, or more specifically, to manage an exhibition of art works.

I like these words, and I’m happy to know them and happy to know how they differ. I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to use either, but I have come across them from time to time. In the past couple of weeks I’ve come across both.

I came across “cynosure” in a mystery novel, Please Pass the Guilt, by my favorite mystery writer, Rex Stout. In this passage Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, is arguing with his frequent antagonist, Inspector Cramer. The situation is complicated, but briefly Wolfe has advertised a reward for information about the murder case he’s working on and someone has tried to claim the reward fraudulently. His claim is based on information leaked by an officer in Cramer’s department. Wolfe threatens to give an interview to the Gazette (a newspaper in Stout’s fictional world) revealing the leak, and Cramer threatens him in turn—“You know damn well you can’t do this. We’d tear your guts out. You’d be done.” And Wolfe replies that he would be protected by the very publicity which Cramer fears. “I would be a cynosure, a man of mark.” Notice that Wolfe (or Stout?) politely defines the word, so Cramer (the reader?) doesn’t have to run to the dictionary.

Earlier in this episode, Wolfe uses another word, a word I didn’t learn in my grade eight English class. Here Wolfe is dictating to his assistant Archie Goodwin (in Cramer’s presence) the wording of the interview he is threatening to give to the Gazette. He initially says that someone tried to claim the reward by fraud, but then he corrects himself—“No. Instead of ‘fraud’ make it ‘by subreption.’ It’s more precise and will add to vocabularies.” Wolfe is speaking to Archie, but Stout is speaking to the reader. He did increase my vocabulary. The word “subreption” means something like “the suppression of the truth or concealment of facts with a view to obtaining a benefit”—“fraud” I think is a more general kind of deceit; “subreption” is also related to “surreptitious”, and both ultimately derive from the Latin verb “surripio”, “to take away secretly”, from the verb “rapio”, “to seize or take”.

I came across “sinecure” in a thriller by Len Deighton, London Match, the final volume of a trilogy (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match). The plot of the book is rather complicated, and not worth explaining here in detail, but very briefly in this passage the hero of the book, Bernard Samson, is talking with a colleague, Werner, about a KGB agent who escaped from detention in Berlin. (This was back in the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall still divided East and West Berlin.) Werner says to Bernard: “Our people risk everything when they go through the Wall…. But what do their people risk when they come to spy on the West? No one crossing to our side is inspected very closely. Being a KGB agent is one of the safest jobs going…. That woman’s job was a sinecure. It was a million-to-one chance that she was swept up by the arrest team” (p. 310).

I suspect that Deighton’s usage is not quite correct. He means, I think, that her job wasn’t dangerous, not that it didn’t involve work. He seems to be understanding the word as if the “cure” part were derived from “care”—“a job that she didn’t have to feel concern about”—rather than from “cure”—“a job that required no effort”.

I find words fascinating, I always have, and I think that lots of people find words fascinating. I don’t think we do enough in our schools to teach words in an interesting way. If I had been able to teach what I wanted, I would have taught a university level course in words. Whenever I could, I would steal a few minutes to give a five or ten minute talk on some word or words relevant to the topic of the day, and I found that students seemed to enjoy those little digressions. So my next few posts will be about some interesting words. As always, I welcome comments and questions and contributions to the discussion.

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