Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Call it "Balmy" or "Sweltering," Summer (and Summer Words) are Here

Sunday is the longest day of the year and the official start to summer. To get ready, we're taking a look at the words and terms enshrined in our language that capture our collective experience of the summer season — trotted out once again like the shorts and sandals we've been waiting all winter to wear again.

The stories behind this summer vocabulary may not qualify as "beach reading," but they cover a lot of semantic ground and make for some some interesting etymological exploration.

Solstice

Summer's start date, the longest day of the year, is called the Summer Solstice. The sol- at the beginning of solstice means "sun," with the rest of the word deriving from the Latin sistere, "to come to a stop, make stand still." Why? Because, from a pre-Copernican earthly perspective, the sun appeared to stop on the solstice before reversing direction.

A Naming Strategy that Would Give Us a National Pilgrimage to "The Honest Memorial"

The names of summer months come to us from the Roman calendar. June probably means "sacred to Juno," who was the Roman goddess of women and marriage. July was named in honor of Gaius Julius Caesar, and August is named after Augustus Caesar.

Fun note: Augustus is basically an adjective in Caesar's name, meaning "venerable," as in the English word august. Honoring someone by immortalizing a word that describes them instead of their actual name would give us a Washington D.C. tour highlighted by a visit to the Honest Memorial.

Speaking of Honest: Let's Finally Admit We've Been Sweating Together for Centuries

Sweat is an old word with an interesting history. In Old English and up through Middle English, there were different words for the verb, the act of sweating, and the noun, the actual substance of sweat. One of the metaphorical uses of the verb, "to worry over something," is quite old, dating back to the 15th Century. Just by way of comparison, the noun perspiration, which comes from a Latin word meaning "to blow or breathe constantly" has only been used as a euphemism for sweat since the early 18th Century.

Quiz: Which is the Better Synonym for Summer Temperatures, Balmy or Sweltering?

Neither! Even if today's weatherpeople might call out a nice day as balmy, or a hot one as sweltering, neither of these words has had much to do, historically, with whether or not it is hot out. Balmy (from balm), meaning "delicately fragrant," has been applied to soothing things and pleasant breezes for centuries.

Swelter in fact comes from Old English sweltan, "to die, perish," which is what you might feel will happen to you on an afternoon of three-digit temperatures and not enough iced tea. The connection may be that an ancestor of the word was used to describe being "overcome with fever." This is a common occurrence in Modern English too, with phrases like "I'm burning up"  or "I'm on fire."

Even before James Brown, Hot Could Mean Attractive

Another weatherperson term is scorcher, from scorch, "to burn slightly." Although it may sound like a very modern term, it actually dates from 1874, when the term could be used as an indicator for several things, including an attestation from 1881 where scorcher refers to "a hot girl." This also shows that English has been using heat as a euphemism for attractiveness for a very long time. In fact, recent studies date the equation of hot with attractiveness to the 16th Century.

Don't Thank Fido for Dog Days

The term "Dog Days of Summer" doesn't refer to days so hot you have to pant like a dog to get through them, but is rather astronomical in nature. July 3 to August 11 is usually the time that Sirius the Dog Star appears to rise in the sky. This period was traditionally thought of as the hottest time of year, and even took on moral implications as being unwholesome:

In the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. —Hesiod, Works and Days

Umbrellas for...Sun?!

To protect yourself from such destructive influences most available in summer — or at least from the sun itself — you might want to use an umbrella. The fact that umbrellas were first used not as a shield from the rain, but as protection from the sun, is reflected in the word's etymology. The Latin is umbella, "sunshade, parasol" which is the diminutive of umbra, "shade, shadow" (umbra is also where the "r" in umbrella comes from.) 

And for When It's "Hotter than Helena's Hinges"...

It may at times be "hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk" or "hotter than Hades" or "hotter than a cat on a hot tin roof," but hopefully it will never get too hot to think of more vivid and colorful variations along this theme, such as "hotter than a pair of sweatpants full of barbecue," "hotter than a firecracker lit on both ends," or "hotter than a two-dollar pistol." (Find more of these at The Phrase Finder and TalkWeather.com.)


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 19th 2015, 1:35 AM
Comment by: steve H.
Thought summer started at the beginning of June?
Friday June 19th 2015, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Did you really say some word starting in the late 19th century isn't modern?

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