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Italian word of the day: 'Canicola'

Jessica Phelan
Jessica Phelan - [email protected]
Italian word of the day: 'Canicola'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This is just the word for a real Roman scorcher.

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If you have any energy left to speak right now, after fanning yourself like a maniac and picking up your water bottle ten times a minute, you'll probably want to save it for this word: canicola, or 'heatwave'. 

È arrivata la canicola estrema: proteggetevi!
An extreme heatwave is here: protect yourselves!

You might also hear the English-inspired term ondata di caldo, which is literally 'wave of heat'. But canicola (hear it pronounced here) has a fascinating etymology that makes it particularly appropriate to describe a real Roman scorcher.

Look at the word closely: does the first part remind you of anything? The clue is cani, which resembles the Italian word for 'dog' (cane). 

Like our English phrase 'the dog days of summer', canicola refers to the time when Sirius – also known as Alpha Canis Majoris or more commonly, the Dog Star – appears to rise and set in time with the Sun.

Sirius, the faithful companion of the mythical hunter Orion, becomes visible in the east just before sunrise for approximately 40 days in early summer, a period referred to by the Ancient Romans as the dies caniculares – the 'dog days'. They and the Greeks before them believed the phenomenon brought scorching heat, disruption and even disaster.

Depending on whether or not you have air conditioning, you might agree with them.

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In Italian, the occurrence was given the name of the star itself: canicula – Latin for 'little dog'. It survives today as the word for a spell of stifling heat.

But if canicola is too much to get your sun-addled head around, you can also go for a shorter alternative: afa, which describes the particular type of oppressive, sultry heat that results from high humidity in Italy.

Senti che afa!
Just feel how hot and muggy it is!

C'è un'afa terribile in luglio.
It's terribly hot and muggy in July.

According to the dictionary, the origin of the word is "onomatopoeic" – i.e., it corresponds to the sound you might make when you're altogether too hot and sticky.

For some more creative and colourful expressions, see our list of phrases for complaining about the heat like a true Italian.

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