Why do you call it a canicule?

Word etymologies are great fun. Here’s a few pertinent ones.


Usually this French word is translated to English as heatwave, but a more picturesque and almost literal translation would be “the dog days of summer”. Basically it means that it is very hot, hotter than it usually is. But why this reference both in the French “cani” and English to dogs? What do dogs have to do with heat? It goes back to astronomy. The Dog Star, or Sirius, rises and sets with the sun during the summer. Thus the most sultry time of the year became associated with the Dog Star, called canicula in Latin. The word canicule dates from about 1500, but the Romans and Greeks had already been refering to the dog days and associating them with the star Sirius.

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky; On summer nights, star of stars, Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat And fevers to suffering humanity.

Homer’s Illiad

Once in a blue moon

This idiomatic expression expresses the rarity of an event. It refers to the second time the moon turns full in a calendar month, popularly known as a “Blue Moon.” Full moons occur on average each 29.53 days (the length of the synodic month), or 12.3683 times per year; so months containing two full moons occur on average every 2.72 years, or every 2 years plus 8 or 9 months, in other words not very often. In French we would say “tous les trente-six du mois“. New Year’s Eve will fall on a blue moon in 2028, coinciding with a total lunar eclipse. Read more about the expression.


This magical ‘word of power’ was believed to take its strength from the concealed (Hebrew) initials of Father, son and Holy Spirit. The earliest reference to it is in the writings of Severus Sammonicus in the second century AD. He used it as a charm against malaria but the word survives today as a type of magical incantation.


‘To run amok’ is a Malaysian term and means to be seized with a sudden, blindly destructive frenzy or to use a parallel of Viking origin, ‘to go berserk’. In French “être pris(e) de folie furieuse”.


‘The whole kit and caboodle’ means ‘the whole lot’, ‘absolutely everything’. The ‘kit’ comes from British English meaning the entire outfit; caboodle is probably a deformation or the Dutch boedel, meaning property or goods with ‘ka’ in front to make an alliterative phrase. In French we say “tout le bazaar/bataclan”.


The French word bataclan is likely an onomatpeia of sounds imitating things falling and running into each other. Ba-ta-clan is the name of an operette composed in 1855 par Jacques Offenbach. The piece was crazy and wild, silly, and full of odd sounds and Chinese mimicry, but a real crowd pleaser. The show Ba-ta-clan was so popoular that a café-théâtre was created 10 years later named after it. The new theatre had Chinese-imitation decor as well. It is still on boulevard Voltaire.

Learn more idiomatic expressions like canicule, dog days of summer and the whole kit and caboddle in French and English with the Speak Easy game books. https://www.fusac.fr/speak-easy-puzzles/