The origin story of the idiom ‘dog days of summer’

dog days of summer illustration Photo by Lana_Samcorp/Shutterstock

Navigating through the gruelling summer heat with your pup panting alongside paints the picture—or rather, feeling—of what people refer to as the “dog days of summer.” The days when you can fry an egg on the pavement, and lose all control of your hair in the humidity. Yeah, you know the days. But, the phrase we are all familiar with doesn’t quite capture its true origin. 

Dog days of summer—like many phrases we know and use today—has gone through a game of broken telephone, losing its original meaning. In fact, the phrase doesn’t really have anything to do with dogs or us cottagers hiding from the heat, but rather Sirius, the celestial figure. 

So, where does the phrase “dog days of summer” actually come from?

It was the Ancient Greeks who first coined the phrase, using it to track the months. The Greeks found that Sirius, the brightest star, rose in the Northern Hemisphere, marking the year’s hottest days, typically in late July to early August. 

You may be wondering where the whole pooch thing fits in here. According to Jay B. Holberg’s Sirius: Brightest Diamond in the Night Sky, Sirius is the dog of Orion, the Hunter, and a part of the constellation Canis Major, which translates to the “greater dog” in English. While it isn’t clear the exact origin of this word, many believe that the name originated from sierios, meaning searing or burning. The Greeks would later nickname this star the “dog star.” 

Canis Major
Photo by Jazziel/Shutterstock

And let me tell you: this puppy has a dark constellation story from ancient Greece. They believed that Sirius tracked and lured prey for Orion. And, that his presence brought a sense of gloom; foreshadowing scorching weather, dry crops, and bizarre animal behaviour brought on by heat waves, explains Holberg.

He built a reputation for himself, becoming a metaphor for flaming bright heat and blazing skies, even landing a reference as the Bronze Age armour in Homer’s book, The Iliad. It was official: early July to mid-August became synonymous with “days of the dog star,” or simplified the “dog days,” wrote Holberg. Transcending through the ages, this star made its way into iconic pop culture, inspiring the character Sirius Black from Harry Potter. 

Here’s why the “dog days of summer” might be changing

Here’s the kicker. No longer does he signal that the hottest days are near, but rather, Sirius’ shines the brightest in the Northern Hemisphere in wintertime

And, with climate change on our heels, the worst of the “dog days” are not necessarily tied to July and August. Seasonally, temperatures are rising sooner, humidity is becoming constant, and Canadian cities are breaking heat records each summer. According to Environment Canada, average annual temperatures are rising; we had our hottest heat wave in June of 2021, and spring is coming earlier. Even May of this year had its burst of feverish warmth. So, will July and August lose their status as the “dog days of summer”? Maybe. 

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