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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.


The word bailiwick goes back to the 1400s or so, originally used to describe the jurisdiction of a bailiff — who, back then, was someone hired to assist the sheriff. Today, however, the word is often used metaphorically to describe someone’s area of expertise or authority. I almost always see it used in the negative or adversative, such as “That’s not really her bailiwick,” or “That’s outside my bailiwick.”

Etymologically, you can divide the word neatly in two: The first half is from the Old French term for bailiff, and the second is from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning town or village. (The latter is undoubtedly the same suffix that shows up in place names and surnames like Berwick, Hartwick, Warwick, Fenwick, and Eastwick.)

So it’s a useful term for your vocabulary, not to mention a series of sounds that’s pleasant to say. But why do I like the word so much?

When I was thirteen, my parents bought me a subscription to a puzzle magazine called Games, and I became immediately enthralled. Every issue included articles, brain teasers, game reviews, and other delicious content, but I loved the magazine most because it introduced me to so many types of wordplay. Sure, it contained your run-of-the-mill crosswords and word searches — but there were also all manner of inventive puzzles that played with words and letters in just about any way imaginable: cryptic crosswords, word spirals, word flowers, word rummy, and lots more. Early on, I couldn’t complete many of the puzzles; nevertheless, I was hooked. Even today, when I’m gearing up for a plane ride, I make sure my carry-on contains a mechanical pencil and a fresh issue of Games from the newsstand.

What, you ask, does this have to do with the word bailiwick? Well, one recurring puzzle in the magazine featured a list of five-letter sequences plucked from inside common English words. The goal was to identify the source word for each string of letters. For example, given the clue TCHST, you had to come up with the word matchstick. Or, for EETOT, the solution might be teetotaler.

When you look at bailiwick, perhaps you first see the words bail and wick — solid words, so normal they’re downright boring. But me? My eye goes right to the three i’s at its middle, with only the lovely liquids l and w to separate them. And all I can see is trickery, because (as I’ve thought many times) the clue ILIWI would be quite a stumper. Gaze at the word long enough, and the dots of those lowercase i‘s just might start to wink and nod, like wildflowers in the English countryside, mischievously expressing their agreement.

When I hear the word barnstorm, I always see the same picture in my mind: a brightly painted biplane flying low over a sunny stretch of farmland. It turns out, however, that the word predates stunt pilots and flying machines. Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1883, twenty years before the Wright Brothers truly got airborne.

Originally, barnstorm was used in talking about theater troupes who toured 19th-century rural America. I’m no etymologist, but it seems no great stretch to imagine that these amateur thespians staged their performances in local barns. Later, when itinerant politicians and promoters crossed the countryside in similar fashion, the term came to be applied to them as well.

For me, however, the word evokes the county fairs and carnivals of yesteryear, all summer days and azure skies. The heyday of barnstorming was brief: just a few years in the 1920s, before high-profile accidents and safety regulations grounded most daredevil pilots. But its impression on the nation’s psyche remains.

And why not? We’re talking the stuff of classic Americana: plenty of danger and skill, mixed with a bit of foolhardiness, served up with lots of noise and speed, all to entertain the masses. Why, barnstorming might just have been the Avatar of its day.

Even the word itself is a feat of engineering, almost too unwieldy for flight — thanks to seven heavy consonants, carefully balanced between two syllables. And that’s exactly why I love barnstorm: for its delicious heft in the mouth, its Anglo-Saxon-ness. (Both barn and storm, as you might guess, have roots all the way back in Old English.)

Watch carefully, though, as those two open vowels, like propellers, not only get the thing off the ground, but send it soaring with surprising grace. Sure, I enjoy roller coasters and action flicks as much as the next guy. But a word like barnstorm? That’s enough to really take my breath away.

The word aubergine simply means eggplant.

Now the eggplant may seem like a rather homely offering from the garden. Granted, its culinary appeal is far from universal (though I would contend that many folks have never tasted it well-prepared). But I’ve come to enjoy cooking with it as an adult, and I’ve been a fan of its skin’s midnight purple — which can also be called aubergine — since I was a kid.

Botanically, the plant’s closest cousins include the humble potato and tomato. The word’s pedigree, however, is downright exotic. You can probably guess that English borrowed it from the French, who rounded its vowels and softened its consonants, but its etymological journey traces back through Catalan and Arabic, into the unwritten history of Persia.

To fully appreciate the word aubergine, you have to say it aloud. So go on. (No one’s listening.) Draw out the spacious oh, big and round like the vegetable’s end. Travel the length of the second syllable, moving through the r to the luxurious buzz of the lazy g. Then finish up at the stem end, with the smaller ee vowel and the resonant n. It’s delicious, I tell you — better than eggplant parmigiana.

If you’re going to add the term to your own lexicon, be aware that it’s mostly the Brits and Aussies who use it for the vegetable. Here in the States, it’s usually the color we’re talking about. Either way, it’s quite common: a quick search at Google News shows the word cropping up most often with regard to cooking and fashion.

Oh, aubergine: such a delight for the eyes, the ear, and the palate.


June 2023
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