Have you ever wondered why the hottest days of summer are referred to as ‘dog days’? What is the connection between man’s best friend and the season normally associated with power cuts and water shortage? As the temperature begins to soar, do dogs go mad? Do we actually see more mad canines prowling the streets in summer? Not really. Contrary to popular belief, the expression ‘dog days’ has nothing to do with the dogs on earth; it has more to do with the dog in the sky! A dog in the sky, you ask? Hey, when you can have a big bear in the sky, why not a humble dog? By now, you must have put two and two together and figured out that I’m talking about stars! More specifically, I’m talking about Sirius, commonly known as the Dog Star. Unlike in India, the hottest days in Europe mostly occur in the month of July, and during this period, the Dog Star rises along with the sun. The ancient Romans believed that this star added to the intense heat of the sun, causing the weather to become unbearably hot. The expression ‘dog days’ is actually a translation of the Latin, ‘caniculares dies’.
During the dog days of summer, parents warn their children not to stay out in the sun for too long. Kids being kids think they know better, and choose not to listen to sensible advice. Result? By the end of the day they begin to ‘feel under the weather’. Now, this is a rather strange expression, isn’t it? Under the weather! Come to think of it, we are all under the weather, aren’t we? After all, we are all under the sky! Where did this rather odd expression come from? Believe it or not, this expression which has been part of the English language for several hundred years comes from the world of sailing. There are many people who hate travelling; like me, they are not at all keen on seeing different places. (Besides, things look so much better on TV!) Even those who enjoy visiting places do not always make good travellers. Some get ‘airsick’, some ‘carsick’ and others ‘seasick’. People on a cruise often fi nd that the rocking motion of the ship makes them violently sick. When the weather gets really rough at sea, the ship rocks and sways so violently that people who haven’t found their sea legs throw up even more. Passengers who are unable to cope with the swaying motion are often sent below deck. There are two reasons for this. The first, of course, is that they will be away from the inclement weather, but perhaps more important is that the swaying motion of the ship is felt far less below. This is felt most on the deck; while little or no swaying is felt near the keel, near the bottom of the ship.
If you are on a trip and feel under the weather, you are likely to be in very low spirits; you may feel rather depressed. You may be feeling that you are in the doldrums! This expression ‘in the doldrums’ too comes from the world of sailing. In the old days, ships depended on the wind to get from one place to another. If there was no wind, the ship remained stagnant. ‘Doldrums’ is actually the name of a place situated near the equator where there is not much wind. Sometimes, ships floated around helplessly for several days or weeks in the region – till the wind fi lled the sails and helped them to move along. When sailors were caught in the Doldrums, they felt bored and often became depressed. As time went by, the expression was used to refer to anyone who was feeling depressed.
Since I began by talking about the sun and the stars, it is only fitting that I end by talking about the moon. When things happen rarely, we say they happen once in a blue moon. When was the last time you saw a moon that was blue in colour? There are several explanations as to the origin of this expression. According to scientists, when a volcano erupts, the sulfur and dust particles that are thrown up into the atmosphere often cause the moon to appear blue for some time. When the volcano on Krakatoa (an island between Java and Sumatra) exploded in 1883, rocks were hurled thirty miles high into the air and dust from the volcano fell nearly 3000 miles away. After this eruption, the moon looked blue for several days. Another explanation offered by scholars is the following. On very rare occasions, we have two full moons within the same month. The editors of ‘Maine Farmer’s Almanac’ used to indicate the first full moon of the month in red and the second, when it did occur, in blue!
The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected].