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I am aware of the lightning rod used to protect buildings and structures. But, what does it mean to refer to a person as a lightning rod? Also, when is it appropriate to use and when should it be avoided?

See this NY Times article for example, which is titled James Franco’s 2 Roles at Yale - Scholar and Lightning Rod.

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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

A real lightning rod attracts lightning to it. A person is said to be a lightning rod to suggest they attract something to them, most often criticism, controversy, or negative comments. Usually the thing they attract is indicated in the same sentence or nearby in the context. In the referenced NY Times article, the something is not very explicit, but they seem to be saying he naturally attracts attention to himself.

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mgkrebbs: Can I take it that commonly this term has a negative connotation, even though it seem positive in this NYTimes article? –  Ashwin Mar 26 '11 at 7:55
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It can be neutral, but most often the connotation is negative. The negativity sometimes tends to belong more to the thing attracted, like criticism, than to the person who is the lightning rod. –  mgkrebbs Mar 26 '11 at 8:06
    
mgkrebbs: Thanks so much for clarifying! :-) –  Ashwin Mar 26 '11 at 9:28
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+1: Contrast the generally negative context in which 'lightning rod' is used with the generally positive way in which 'magnet' is used within the same language style: "That guy is a chick magnet", meaning that many women are attracted to that guy. –  oosterwal Mar 26 '11 at 15:58
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A lightning rod is someone who attracts a lot of criticism, in particular in order to shield other people (like a literal lightning rod diverts lightning harmlessly into the ground). It is thus related in meaning with scapegoat, i.e. someone who is blamed for the mistakes of others.

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Used in this sense it means a person is a cynosure:

cynosure a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration

The term "lightning rod" can also refer to a person or thing attracts hostile attention: "When he was president of Harvard University, Larry Summers was a lightning rod for feminist criticisms after baldly announcing that women weren't as good as men at the sciences."

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In addition to the term scapegoat already mentioned above, some alternative terms that are in common use in the USA are fall guy and patsy.

The term lightning rod is frequently used in contexts where, as mgkrebs suggested, a largely innocent person, or one having only a secondary connection to some controversial issue, willingly or unwillingly takes the hit or the blame as the repercussions of a debacle unfold or expand.

Lightning rod is largely restricted to situations where the attention resulting from a poor policy choice or other bad decision needs to be deflected or diverted; it would not normally be used in more straightforward situations involving culpable behaviour. For instance, if Jonathan helped himself to his mother's home-made biscuits but blamed his little brother Billy for the act, Billy could perhaps be described as Jonathan's scapegoat or patsy; but this simple situation does not encompass the kinds of politically expedient machinations implied by lightning rod.

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