As I sit sweltering in a heat of the high thirties Celsius, I’ve become very aware of the French word for heatwave – canicule. When a friend asked me its etymology, I turned to my trusty Larousse Dictionnaire étymologique. This is what it says:

“de l’ital. canicula, petite chienne, désignant l’Etoile (ou Chien) de Sirius, dont le lever héliaque coïncide avec le solstice d’été, calque du gr. kuôn, chien.”

Obvious, really – it’s what we call the dog days, which they’ve specialised to mean a heatwave. This is all very well, but when I told my local italian barista that I’d discovered a new italian word, she told me she’d never heard of it! The Italian for a heatwave is far more straightforward – ‘ondata di caldo’. And when I went to my bilingual Italian-English dictionary, there is no such word as canicula.

So, why does Larousse believe it’s Italian? I don’t know, but certainly what we’ve got at the moment is rather more than a “little bitch”!


  1. Hello, Graham.

    I hope all’s well with you.

    “canicola” is a literary term for “heatwave”; another possible spelling in Italian is “canicula”, but that is old-fashioned.

    Please see this link:

  2. Alex –
    How good to hear from you! Yes, I am well. Thank you for clarifying this. My Larousse is from 1971, so maybe it’s been updated since, but if not, perhaps they should consider adding something equivalent to “old-fashioned”, e.g. ‘anc.’ when they mention “canicula”. The source is given as “Molinet, 1500”, but I don’t know why Larousse considers canicule to be borrowed from Italian rather than directly from Latin. Jean Molinet was a 15th century poet, dying in 1507. He was historiographer to the court of Burgundy (warning: this information on Molinet is taken from Wikipedia) so presumably knew Latin well.

  3. In the plural in Russian, каникулы (kanikuly) is the word for (e.g. school) holidays.

  4. Martin –
    Which is a different specialized meaning for “Dog Days”. Thanks!

  5. See the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales at https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/canicule where the primary meaning is given as “Étoile principale de la constellation du Grand Chien, appelée plus couramment Sirius”. Click on the other tabs for some great stuff.
    The “B” meaning is given as “Très forte chaleur”, which doesn’t convey the (to me) implication of unusualness that “heatwave” does in English. If it’s usually (or even often) 30C in August where I live, I don’t call it a heatwave, even though it’s ‘very intense heat.’ If it goes up to 40C, then it’s a heatwave. (35C? — hmmmh — maybe.)

  6. Len –
    Thank you very much for these comments. I hadn’t thought to look and see what my (admittedly fifty-year-old) Petit Larousse had to say, but now I have, and this is what I read:

    (lat. canicula, petite chienne). Epoque correspondant au début de l’été. ‖ Période de très grande chaleur.
    So a canicule may occur at any time of the year, not just during the dog days.

    Neither Spanish nor Italian appears to use canicula in this way – they both have the expression which translates directly as ‘wave of heat’: ola de calor (Spanish) and onda di caldo (Italian). Spanish canícula is simply translated by my Spanish dictionaries as ‘dog days’.

    My personal interpretation of ‘heatwave’ is like yours – not necessarily intense heat, but a degree of heat that is unusual for the time of year. 20°C for a week at Christmas where I live would qualify, for me at least, as a heatwave, even if meteorologists might beg to differ.

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