Let’s start with a hat tip: I have Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski to thank for reminding me of this month’s nine-letter word. (No, I don’t know the guy, except in a very 21st-century way: I follow him on Twitter.) Early this July, when the East Coast was suffering through some of its hottest weather for the year, he brought up the word in a witty and apropos tweet. And what a great word to highlight, too — not that we’d expect anything less from a lexicologist at the esteemed M-W.

August, however, is the month when the heat goes up and summer vacations wind down for most of the U.S., and that means school is right around the corner. Fittingly, the story of canicular takes us through half a day’s worth of classes — say, Latin, earth science, astronomy, and maybe that AP English class meant to raise your SAT score.

Even the most Latin-illiterate among us can probably make a connection between canicular and the more common word canine, right? Yeah, we’re dealing with something about dogs here. Canicular, in fact, is used to refer to anything having to do with the dog days of summer. And just what are the dog days? Growing up, I heard folks use the phrase pretty broadly to talk about any sustained period of hot weather. Turns out that there’s a slightly more precise meaning for dog days, namely (per Merriam-Webster again) “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” Just reading that makes me reach for the thermostat.

But why are they called the dog days? When I was a kid, the term always called up the image of some pooch lying on the porch, panting in the heat. When my little brain stirred that around with words like hangdog and idioms like a dog’s life and dog-eat-dog world — I just figured it really sucked to be a dog, and the dog days are when everyone’s as miserable as a dog.

As you can probably guess, that’s not the connection. So what is? Perhaps you’ve heard of Sirius, the Dog Star — so called because it’s the located in the constellation Canis Major (“the big dog” — there’s that Latin canine connection again). It’s also the brightest star in the sky, so the ancients paid it close attention. Centuries ago, the Romans noticed that, during this annual period of hot weather, Sirius was rising on the horizon about the same time as the sun, and they figured the star was responsible for the heat. That’s when they coined the term dies caniculares — which eventually got translated to the English dog days.

This week, even though the dog days are still officially upon us, my part of the country is experiencing some milder temperatures. But despite the debt I owe Willis Haviland Carrier, I’m still rooting for one last blast of good canicular weather before Labor Day arrives.

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