Thursday, August 03, 2006



In a sketch recorded many years ago, Steve Martin complains, "Those French have a different word for everything!" Why, I wondered, do they have the word "canicule" when English-speakers need two words ("heat" and "wave")? In this case they seem not only to have a different word, but to have a word missing from the reputedly abundant English language.

As it turns out, "canicule" did not originally mean "heat wave" per se. It names the canicular period, when Sirius (the dog star) rises and sets with the sun (or, according to Wikipedia, Sirius "rises after and sets before the sun, and hence is lost in the latter's glare"); this is the time of year which is typically hottest, from 22 July to 22 August.

Furthermore, some English dictionaries include "canicule", so it is not really missing (I was just ignorant). In common parlance, we refer to "dog days", the vulgarisation of caniculares dies.

However, if the time of year which is typically hottest falls earlier each year (we had a major heat wave in Europe in early July this year, but who knows what August will bring) it will have nothing to do with the dog star or constellation and perhaps should be given a new name.

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I had no idea "canicule" was also a word in english - and the link with "dog days" is fascinating!
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