La canicule

At some point in the early years of the 21st century I learned a new French word (new to me, that is), canicule meaning heat wave.

Despite the persistent efforts of my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Bridge, to sour me permanently on the Latin language, I still vaguely remembered the Latin word canis, meaning dog, so I assumed the word canicule referred to the way dogs tend to lie around and pant during extremely hot weather.

But from a weather forecaster on French television I later learned a somewhat different version. He said the word canicule refers to a star, Sirius, which in Italian is also called Canicula, meaning petite chienne in French or “little bitch” (= a small female dog) in English.

This star Sirius or Canicula is the brightest star in the sky. It is part of the constellation Canis Major, or large dog. Because Sirius rises and sets with the Sun during the northern summer, roughly between July 22 and August 22, the term canicula came to be associated with these often-hot days.

The English expression ‘the dog days of summer’ has a similar origin, coming directly from the Latin diēs caniculārēs.

Good advice from the mayor’s office

As in many other cities, the mayor’s office in Paris has started putting up electronic signboards to announce coming events and give good advice to the citizenry. This message from the summer of 2006 says:

“Heat over Paris. Aged or frail persons should prefer the shade and drink very often.”

Did I already qualify as being an aged person? (Of course I did, I just didn’t want to admit it.) Perhaps they had noticed me cycling around in the sun all day?

Well, I did drink a lot of water, in any case. And kept reapplying sun-blocker to avoid getting sunburnt.

On some of these hot days I made the mistake of wearing black trousers which quickly got bleached out in places by the bright sunlight.


I’m a sucker for a clever advertisement, and the one I liked best during the Paris heat wave of 2006 was this one for Perrier mineral water about how to mix a drink called L’Extincteur (The Extinguisher) with 1/3 Perrier and 2/3 Perrier. I even went so far as to order Perrier with my meals sometimes, which is unusual for me because I have great confidence in the quality of Parisian tap water and not so much confidence in the quality of water that has been stagnating in a bottle for months on end.

My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2021.

My lead photo shows Rue Daguerre in the 14th arrondissement of Paris.

23 thoughts on “La canicule”

  1. We always drink tap water in France. I buy a bottle of a Evian and keep refilling from the tap while we’re there. Then I bring the bottle home as a souvenir. They don’t sell the neat sport tops in the USA so it has to last until the next trip.

  2. The power of advertising! It is a clever idea, for sure 😆

    I can’t take too much heat in the city so I would be following that advice, and would even have done so many years ago, long before I was the target audience!

    1. Yes, it was a clever advert, but I have long since reverted to ordering tap water instead of bottled water with my meals: ‘une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait.’ The Paris waterworks insist their water is just as good, and 300% cheaper.
      Somebody back on VT pointed out that naive is Evian spelled backwards.

  3. What are the chances that you and I should mention our High School Latin teachers on our respective blogs during the same week! Mine came up in a comment in relation to the slashing of the classics program at Howard University.

    But I too am growing fond of this new French word. Nothing is as miserable here in Florida as late July through August, and the dog days of summer are definitely “a little b****. ”

    Always enjoy your posts in this time of very limited travel, when everyone is sick of staring at the same four walls. I suppose we could call this time the dog days of COVID. 😊

        1. I still have my old Latin book. On some of the pages, I wrote the numbers from 25 down to 1 in the margin, and crossed out a number each minute for the last 25 minutes of the class.

          1. Haha! As long as they were Roman numerals I guess it would be ok…😊

            I was a kid fresh from the midwest that had never heard of Latin being taught in high school. I took all the German my new school offered (2 measley years–you could take six at my jr/sr high in Minnesota!)and then had two years of Latin.

            about all I can recall now is puella parva and agricola. But It sure came in handy on the SAT vocabulary and in law school.

  4. I’ve not experienced la canicule in Paris, but I’ve experienced it in the rest of France, particularly the Southwest and South of France. It’s not just the 40+ °C heat that gets you, but also the annoying mosquitos that eat you alive…glad to learn a bit about the origins of the word, and it truly is the “dog days of summer!”

    1. In recent hot summers, thousands of elderly people have died in France, especially those who live alone with no one to look after them. So it’s no accident that they (or I should say we) are especially mentioned in this kind of reminder.

  5. My son-in-law who is from Miami never wears anything but 100% cotton in light colors. Although based on the middle eastern countries, I guess loose white wool would work too. Basically you don’t want your clothing to absorb the light and turn the energy into heat

    We were in Paris in 2019 when they were having a big heat wave but my granddaughter from Texas didn’t think it was so bad. It was reasonably cool in the morning even when the temps went up higher. I wrote:

    It is still a reasonable temperature this morning although the forecast was for a high of 92F today, 95F tomorrow (Weds) and then Saturday it is forecast to be up to 98. Then it will cool down some. I observed a woman and a boy walking up the street (I assume mother and son) and she was fanning him with her fan as they walked. It was not THAT hot.

    1. I wonder how it will be this summer. Here in Frankfurt we have only had one really unbearable heatwave in this century, and that was 2003. But several other summers have been quite hot lately.

  6. Fascinating post, Don! And if you have any of those ‘dog days of summer’, send a few this way! We had snow on Wednesday, hail on Thursday, and frigid temps today. I thought it was Spring???

I appreciate your feedback!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.