So, How About Those Dog Days of Summer?

By Adrea Gibbs

As things start to get, change that, have gotten, significantly warmer in the last weeks and the mugginess that all-too-often becomes the distinguishing hallmark of summer in our region pops in for the occasional reminder of what is to come, I find myself pondering the phrase, “dog days of summer.” What does that really mean and what is its origin? Certainly someone, somewhere, coined the phrase for a specific purpose. So, let curiosity get the best of me, I chose to dive into the Internet waters in search of answers. Although, I will admit, I simultaneously find myself considering, seriously and perhaps, more accurately, sentimentally, heading off to the library in search of factoids, as I did when a kid, trying desperately to read (and surpass, as I will admit I have always been a bit too ambitious about certain things), enough books to earn myself the pipe-cleaner-bookworm-pin-in-the-color-of-my-choice that had been lovingly handcrafted by the children’s librarians. Then again, after exhausting the card catalog and encyclopedias, no doubt I would find myself at the public computer, regardless.

According to dictionary.com (yes, courtesy of the Internet), dog days are:

1. the sultry part of the summer, supposed to occur during the period that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the sun: now often reckoned from July 3 to August 11.

2. a period marked by lethargy, inactivity, or indolence.

It also goes on to further discuss the origins, which are tied to Sirius, the Dog Star, which is not to be confused with the satellite radio programming outfit. In fact, the Online Etymology Dictionary shares this bit of insight:

1530s, from Latin dies caniculares, from Greek; so called because they occur around the time of the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog Star (kyon seirios). Noted as the hottest and most unwholesome time of the year; usually July 3 to Aug. 11, but variously calculated, depending on latitude and on whether the greater Dog-star (Sirius) or the lesser one (Procyon) is reckoned. 

The heliacal rising of Sirius has shifted down the calendar with the precession of the equinoxes; in ancient Egypt c.3000 B.C.E. it coincided with the summer solstice, which also was the new year and the beginning of the inundation of the Nile. The “dog” association apparently began here (the star’s hieroglyph was a dog), but the reasons for it are obscure.

Yes, obscure, but, still good to know should I ever be in a position to audition for Jeopardy. So while it appears to be logical, it does make me feel a bit badly for dogs, who as one of humankinds most loyal companions, seem to be getting a bad rap. While perhaps a renegade pack of dogs might be considered “unwholesome,” most dogs are quite contrary to that descriptor. Think about those real-life heroes such as Balto and Sgt. Stubby or great dogs of literature like Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, and Old Yeller. Wholesome, faithful, dedicated. Those all come to mind. Maybe not so much when you think about Cujo, but you get the idea. 

Quick derailment, Sirius is actually in the constellation Canis Major, which means, essentially, Big Dog, and Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, sits practically smack dab in the middle of it. So, back to the prior train-of-thought. For whatever reason some astronomer thought in ancient history made sense, it got that particular moniker. Clearly, no one questioned it or thought to say, “I think it looks more like a stick figure of a knight with a broadsword.” True, the guy who discovered it was due naming rights, regardless of his wild or severe lack of imagination. He probably just pointed upwards and said, “See, right there,” where that star is shining? Don’t you think that looks like a dog?” and, of course, no one would want to admit they could not see the dog, social pressures and all. Interestingly enough, upon further research, it seems that around the globe across different civilizations, everyone, well, the astronomers, at any rate, thought the constellation looked like a dog. It does make me wonder, a bit, if any of these guys actually even knew what a dog was or if they were so caught up in the night sky the only examples they saw of said animals were the artistic renderings their young (very young) children showed them made from fingerprinted clay or scribbled on some leftover parchment with a charred stick.

This does call into question the need for thoughtful consideration when it comes to naming anything, children included. There is a permanency subscribed when something is given a title. Just like those horrible sticky labels people are forced to wear at any given convention, conference, mixer, or any number of similar functions, while they may roll up at the edges and feign falling off, more often than not, they hold fast to you, seemingly inconspicuous until several hours after the said event, as you are standing in line at the grocery check-out, the cashier calls you by name. The naming of Sirius in Canis Major has led to dogs being associated with the worst days of summer. Not so sure that dogs deserve that correlation, but because one guy decided there was a dog hanging out in the skies, they, and we, are stuck with it forever.