Recently happened again upon the word "cynosure" and noted it's Greek etymology, e.g. from Wordsmith.org:

Originally the term was applied to the constellation Ursa Minor or the North Star (Polaris) that was used in navigation. The term is derived from Latin Cynosura (Ursa Minor), from Greek kynosoura (dog's tail), ultimately from the Indo-European root kwon- (dog) that is also the source of canine, chenille (from French chenille: caterpillar, literally, little dog), cynic, kennel, canary, hound, dachshund, and corgi. And from the root ors- (buttocks) which also gave us ass, dodo, and squirrel.

I've seen several such references etymologically but have found nothing more fleshed out. Wikipedia maps out many historical associations of the constellation, none of which are related to dogs; in particular the Greek association seems to have been about Zeus/Hera/Callisto:

The classical mythographer identified the "Bear" as the nymph Callisto, changed into a she-bear by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus.

Clearly a bear has a tail... what's the relationship to dogs?

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    Side note: I’m not sure where Wordsmith got the notion that dodo is from the root *h₁ers- (or *h₃er-s-), but it’s nonsense. It’s from Portuguese doudo, which is of unknown origin, perhaps a corruption of Latin doctus. (The dog root is also *k̂u̯on-, not *ku̯on-, but that’s a detail often lost.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 9 '19 at 1:55
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    Maybe it's the hunting dogs. space.com/1018-canine-constellations-night-sky-dogs.html – KannE Feb 9 '19 at 2:00
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    I've researched the issue a bit, but I cannot find any conexion. It seems the Ancient Greeks already called Ursa Minor kunosoura, "dog's tail". It is nowhere near the constellations Canis Minor and Canis Major. Sirius, the "dog-star", is in Canis Major. Bears and dogs are related species, but I'm sure the Greeks did not think of them as the same species, nor even as closely related, for both species were well known to them. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 9 '19 at 2:47
  • To echo the previous comment, the title of your question doesn't seem specifically relevant to the body of your question. The first quote you give clearly indicates dogs in the derivation of Ursa Minor. Unless your question is about why Ursa as associated with Cynosura in the first place. (And the issue of Major versus Minor is just an odd red herring in juxtaposition that we're picking out.) – Jason Bassford Feb 9 '19 at 6:42
  • Note that it is not at all clear that bears have tails; you have to get pretty close to see that they have the smallest of vestigial tails. Whatever the name of the constellation, and whatever crazy notions one gets by looking at it, "a bear's tail" is pretty unimpressive. – Mitch Feb 12 '19 at 16:16

The history of the connection between Ursa Minor (the Latin label) and 'cynosure' (dog tail) is uncertain.

It looks like Wordsmith is following the same source as the Wikipedia article on Ursa Minor. The Wordsmith entry is very short and has left out some of the connections:

The ancient name of the constellation is Cynosura (Greek Κυνοσούρα "dog's tail"). The origin of this name is unclear (Ursa Minor being a "dog's tail" would imply that another constellation nearby is "the dog", but no such constellation is known).

As there is no linguistic connection, no cognates trail between arcto-/ursus and cyno-/canis, it is most likely that there is just different culture involved (or to be more precise, that one guy said it looked like a dog's tail, the other guy a little bear (or more likely named as the small version of the big constellation named a bear)).

If you just remove the reference to Ursa Minor in the Wordsmith article, there would be no problem here linguistically.


I have not heard of a relation between Ursa and dog. Ursa Minor is the Latin for Small Bear. The Dog reference only comes in as the Ancient Greek name for the constellation, as you stated, Cynosura. I would guess that it is simply a matter of 2 different societies naming the shape after a different animal

  • yes, I guess I'll have to call up my local Greek History scholar. It stands to reason given my limited understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean history that multiple groups had different names for that particular cluster of stars and the phrase "Greek name for the constellation" is overly hegemonic... – MichaelChirico Feb 13 '19 at 0:01

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