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Summertime, and the words are too easy

Memorial Day has come and gone, bringing with it the unofficial beginning of the summer in the northern hemisphere. These days, summer evokes such plebeian terms as barbecue, vacation (or, even worse, staycation), or timeshare. Yet if we scratch even the surface of English vocabulary, we quickly find that there is a wealth of more titillating words available with which to describe the months of June through August.

Where do you plan to aestivate this year?

Although it is largely a zoological term, aestivation (which refers to the habit of certain animals to go into a torpor during hot weather) is a fine word to figuratively describe the sluggishness that afflicts so many of us in the summer – at least those of us lucky enough to experience anything resembling hot weather. Aestival comes from the same root (the Latin word aestus, meaning ‘heat’), and has a less weather-dependent application to summer, as it is simply defined as ‘belonging to or appearing in summer’.

If one looks to a historical source, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, one finds that aestus words used to be in considerably greater supply. In addition to the two mentioned above, the English language used to employ such gems as aestivator (an animal that becomes dormant during the summer), aestiferous (resembling the tide), and aestivate (the act of spending the summer someplace).

As an aside, although we have retained the word hibernate, there used to be quite a few more winter words in the English vocabulary as well, including perhiemate (to spend the winter someplace) and hibernaculum (the place where a hibernating animal spends the winter).

Why do we call them dog days?

As the summer continues apace (fingers crossed), and the natural inclination to become fed-up with the heat increases (or the continuation of hosepipe bans), you may find people about you complaining of the dog days of summer. There is a frequently mentioned (and erroneous) explanation for why these particular days (those of July and August) came to be referred to as doggish – many people think that it is because dogs would go mad from the heat. As is so often the case with etymologies, the real reason for the origin is somewhat more prosaic: the canine in this expression refers to the position of Sirius (also known as the Dog Star) in relation to the sun.

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