The Wordsmith

The Age of Heatwaves Is Upon Us

With climate change, temperature spikes are becoming increasingly common. Some 20,000 years after the end of the ice age, we are now entering the age of canicules, or heatwaves.
© Sylvie Serprix

What weather should we expect this summer? Will we have to deal with the same intense heat as last year? This period was particularly catastrophic. In France alone, some estimates put the number of people who died as a direct result of the hot weather at around 3,000. And the French were not the worst hit – far from it. The higher temperatures recorded globally in recent years have been accompanied by deadly natural disasters across the world. Megafires, which are now customary in regions such as California and the Mediterranean, have been coupled with torrential rains, as seen in Pakistan in 2022.

Global warming is no longer a mere theory. Humans lived through the ice age tens of thousands of years ago. Today, we are entering the age of heatwaves. The journey made by the French word for this phenomenon, une canicule, is a strange one. It is originally from the Latin canicula (“small female dog”), a diminutive of canis (“dog”). In Ancient Rome, astronomers and astrologists used it to name a star in the Canis Major constellation. The astral body, Canicula, which is now known as Sirius (from the Greek seirios, “glowing,” “scorching”), is the brightest star in the sky other than our sun.

Around the 45th parallel north, roughly the latitude of Europe and North America, this star rises and sets at the same time as the sun from July 24 through August 24, during which time it shines even brighter. The Ancient Egyptians associated it with Isis, the life-giving goddess of maternity and fertility, and believed that it had supernatural powers – particularly over the levels of the Nile River.

The word canicule is often used and abused, although the French language does differentiate between several precise terms. The public weather organization Météo-France refers to une vague de chaleur (literally “a wave of heat”) when temperatures are abnormally high for several consecutive days. And it just so happens that there has been a huge increase in the frequency of these climatic events since the mid-20th century. However, une canicule specifically defines periods of high temperatures during the day and at night over a certain amount of time. Of course, this is all relative. In Paris, for example, the word canicule would be used when it is at least 90°F during the day and 70°F at night. Yet this would be quite reasonable for people living in Arizona or the Sahel region in Africa, two places where temperatures regularly rise above 104°F.

Synonyms also abound in French, including étuve (“steam bath”) and fournaise (“furnace,” “inferno”). Cagnard (“blazing heat”) is another favorite. This word arrived in French from the Provençal term canha (“female dog”), with the same Latin origins. In everyday language, it refers to a blazing sun. Heat is also often associated with sexuality (and inversely). The now-outdated and outrageously misogynistic expression une femme en chaleur (“a woman in heat”) is a reference to rutting mammals. Another idiom, and one which is still used today, is chaud lapin (literally a “hot rabbit”) to describe a womanizer or someone with a “one-track mind,” as we used to say. Some may venture that there is a fine line between sex and danger… Meanwhile, avoir eu chaud (“having been hot”) means to have narrowly avoided an accident. Originally, this was used in the context of nasty burns. And during a conversation, it is not uncommon to hear someone exclaim: “J’ai eu chaud aux fesses !” (literally “I had a hot butt!,” a slightly more vulgar equivalent).

Last but not least, the expression un temps de chien (literally “dog’s weather”) is used to lament terrible cold or rain – and generally both at once. In short, when you wouldn’t even send a dog out!

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.