EP word of the week (#63): canícula

We’re slightly past the dead of summer by now, with the temperatures in September getting generally milder as you approach the Autumn Equinox (they’re still higher than most places during their respective peak summer seasons; I’m speaking in relative terms here).

In Portuguese, we have a specific word for those scorching hot days you come to expect in July and August (full disclosure: I’m writing this post two months in advance – smack in the middle of July – and it’s 36 ºC/97 ºF outside): [a] canícula.

It’s not the most common of words, but it’s one I love because it mixes a good bit of astronomy and history into your everyday language if you so choose: canícula comes from the Latin phrase diēs canīculāris, which are a reference to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky which sits in the constellation of Canis Major (the Greater Dog), by virtue of which it got its moniker of Dog Star (Canīcula is itself a diminutive of canis, Latin for dog).

In Classical antiquity, Sirius’ heliacal rising (the point in time where you see a star reappear in the eastern sky just before sunrise after having been lost in the glare of the sun) used to match the point in the summer where the days are hottest (late July-early August), that time became known as diēs canīculāris, the days of the Dog Star – that’s the reason why we call them dog days in English (and not just because the heat causes people to pant like dogs) and why the various Romance languages have variations of Canīcula for this same period of time.

Sirius no longer rises in the east before sunrise at that point in time, however: due to a natural phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes or axial precession (which is essentially a 26,000 year-long revolution of the Earth’s axis of rotation around itself), it now rises in late August/early September, which serves both as an important reminder of how time passes (and the heat of summer eventually fades away into autumn) but that a strong enough connection is able to stand the test of time.

It’s all very poetic, romantic stuff, mixing History, Astronomy and Languages in a nice tight package: it’s basically me in a nutshell!, and that’s the reason why I wanted to share this rare (but meaningful and beautiful) word with you today.

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2 thoughts on “EP word of the week (#63): canícula

  1. Yuliya September 15, 2016 / 7:01 am

    Hi, Luís. Very informative article. I have not known the origin of the word though it is spoken widely in Russian. We use it for school and students vacations, both in summer and other seasons. Yet it got a slight alteration: there is the plural form only, no singular.

    Liked by 2 people

    • luisdomingos September 17, 2016 / 8:50 pm

      Thanks for the comments and interesting info! (:

      Like

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