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Other-worldly origin of the French word ‘canicule’

Even the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans knew of these summer heatwaves

With officials warning of the heatwave and the continuing pollution alert in Paris, the ‘canicule’ across France saw daytime temperatures hitting 38.4C in Burgundy and even 24.6C in Paris at dawn.

Although relief and cooler weather is on the way, these ‘dog days’ of summer are well known… and share their origin with the French word for heatwave, canicule.

The sultry days where air does not move except to make way for a thunderstorm are the hottest part of the summer and canicule takes its name from the ancient Greek and Latin, where skygazers noted that the arrival of Canis Majoris, the Dog Star, Sirius, in the night skies marked the start of the hot weather.

Sirius is called the Dog Star as it trails the constellation Orion the Hunter (look down along the three stars in the belt and you will find it – it is by far the brightest star in the sky).

Canicule comes from canus, meaning dog, and the French Trésor de la Langue Française says canicula is a diminutive for little dog.

The ancients would see the star rise in our night skies just before the Sun in mid-July and noted it was just as the heat reached its peak.

The Egyptians saw it marking the annual flooding of the Nile with the heat, sickness and fevers that followed.

Even Homer’s Iliad has a reference, saying Orion’s dog rising leads to war and disaster.

However, the Earth and our calendar seasons are not in sync with the stars and the view of the night sky changes over time. As Bradley Schaefer, professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University, told National Geographic, fast-forward 13,000 years and “Sirius will be rising with the sun in mid-winter”.

In scientific terms, the word canicule is used for a heatwave the lasts several days and nights and where daytime temperatures are above 33C and stay above 20C at night. 

The official heatwave advice suggests:

  • Avoid strenuous exercise
  • Checked on elderly and vulnerable people at least twice a day, and take them somewhere cooler if needs be
  • Close curtains, windows and shutters during the day
  • Try to stay in a cool or air-conditioned environment for at least three hours a day
  • Drink at least 1.5 litres of water per day as well as your usual diet
  • Moisten the skin regularly using a spray mist or with regular cool showers
  • Avoid going outside between 11h and 21h - the hottest time of day - but if you must, wear a hat and cool clothes

One tip for anyone who has a room that heats up unbearably in direct sun... wet the outside of the window and apply baking foil, shiny side out. Tape it down if needed.

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