Italian word of the day: ‘Canicola’

Italian word of the day: 'Canicola'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
This is just the word for a real Roman scorcher.

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 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”, close to 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.

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

But if canicola (pronounced “ka-nik-ola”) 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.

Mi sciolgo – ‘I’m melting’

Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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