Look at Daisy up there, simply enjoying the warmth of the sun, as only a dog really can. What a life of simple joys a dog lives, one we can all be envious of. Seeing her like that yesterday made me think of the phrase the dog days of summer. A lot of people assume that it refers to the hottest period of the summer, in which dogs are too tired to do anything else but lie in the afternoon heat. I can see the logic in that, but as I’d never looked into the origin of the phrase, I thought now was as good a time as any to do so.
As is usually the case, the origin is a lot older and more interesting than you might think. It actually dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and comes from their astrological observations. They noticed that in late July, the star Sirius appeared to rise just before the Sun. This star is known as the Dog Star. This is because it belongs to the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog), which looks like a dog chasing the Lepus (Hare) constellation across the sky. Sirius forms the tip of the dog’s nose, and as it’s so bright it became known as the Dog Star.
So, the phrase has a much grander, cosmological origin than you might have thought. Still though, thinking of it as referring to the heat of that period, and its effect on dogs, makes sense too. That’s what we do when we don’t know what a phrase means: we look for an explanation that makes sense, and even it’s not the actual origin, if it fits, then what harm? When you hear the phrase the dog days of summer you’re going to think of the relative heat of the period (for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere late July and August are the hottest time of the year). And if that makes you think of panting dogs lazing in gardens on sunny afternoons, then why not let that be what it means for you?
There are two things about language at work here that I love. The first is the way in which a phrase can last for centuries, through various translations, and continue to be in use today. It seems almost impossible to imagine that a term probably coined by Ancient Greek astronomers is still commonly used, in a time when popular expressions flit in and out of fashion so quickly. Language can provide us with such a direct link to ancient history, and make us realise that no matter how distant the ancient past might seem, people then were still basically the same as us.
The second is how we analyse language to discover or create its meaning. Most of us don’t consciously think too much about language itself, while a few of us think far too much about it. But we all to some degree interpret new words and expressions. Usually we can understand them from context. But other times, we have to think about where the meaning of something might have come from. And sometimes we’ll get it right, or as in this case, come up with a different origin for a term that still makes sense.
There’s something else I really like about the origin of this term actually, and it’s that it shows that we’ve had the same opinion of dogs for thousands of years. Somebody probably looked at the stars one night in Ancient Athens and said, That group there looks like a hare, doesn’t it? Then they looked to the left and said, And of course that collection of stars is obviously a hunting dog of the Gods, chasing that hare. When you actually look at constellations, it requires quite a stretch of the imagination to see them as depicting what their names suggest. Canis Major could have been anything really, but even in Ancient Greece, people had dogs on their mind, and what else could they imagine a dog doing but enthusiastically chasing a hare across the cosmos? Dogs have so long been our best friend* that I’m not surprised a lot of people conceive of a romantic image for the expression dog days, of good dogs enjoying an afternoon of leisure in the sun, not worrying about having to work in the heat. It is a dog’s life, after all.
Considering our long history of companionship with dogs then, I’ve always been surprised at the existence of the expression It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Why choose dogs? They don’t tend to be wild and engaged in life-or-death struggles for existence. And they only engage in cannibalism in quite extreme circumstances. Perhaps that’s why a lot of people mishear or misunderstand the expression as It’s a doggy-dog world. That’s much less nasty, and much fairer to dogs. I don’t know what exactly a doggy-dog world would look like, but I’d like to live in it. It’d probably be the dog days of summer every day, and with a hare to be chased whenever you felt like it…
*I’m not forgetting our feline fans, but as cats are more solitary, independent creatures, generally, we haven’t idolised them so much in culture, and don’t tend to romanticise our relationship with them (who wants to be called a cat lady?) I’ll also admit that my personal bias may have coloured my writing of this article, because I’ve had dogs from childhood, and am therefore very much a dog person. Though I think I’m naturally that way inclined anyway. I do like cats more than I used to though. That’s mainly due to living with one during my year studying in Edinburgh. And I’m willing to admit that narcissism may have played a part too, as apparently Gorgeous wasn’t too fond of people in general, but seemed to like me, and flattery works very well on me. So while I’ll always prefer dogs, I appreciate cats for being what they are, and may well write something about cat-related expressions at some point.