Although I know three people who absolutely adore Majorca’s hot and soggy summer weather, every member of my family and all my other friends complain about the heat as soon as the thermometer moves towards 30C. So this is the worst time of the year for all of us.
We are now well and truly in the dog days of July and with August to come — the dog days never fail to dog us.
The term‘dog days’, so called because of the rising of the Dog Star (Sirius) between July and September, is a translation of the Latin ‘dies caniculares’.
In ancient times, though, the dog days must have been called hound days or perhaps canine days, because the word ‘dog’ didn’t exist before the 5th century.
Even the most erudite of lexicographers don’t know where the ‘dog’ came from. When you trace the origins of the word you come to a dead end in the 5th century. Before that, ‘dog’ simply didn’t exist. The English used ‘hound’ or ‘canine’ instead.
Dog has neither Germanic nor Romantic roots — it’s a word with absolutely no pedigree whatever. Some experts think it could have come from a bit of nonsense slang that went out of fashion and was lost forever.
But this word with no family ties has no intention of being left in the doghouse. Like the animal it depicts, the word settled in immediately and made friends everywhere: the 2,262-page large format Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives five columns of words containing dog — and that’s not counting those such as dogma, which have nothing to do with hounds.
Sailors were fond of dogs, and nautical language is full of references to their favourite pet. The ‘dog basket’ wasn’t where the dog slept, it was a container in which the remains of sailing ship cabin meals were collected by members of the crew and eaten in their quarters. The term ‘dog in a blanket’ was mid-19th century seafaring slang for a roly-poly pudding. The crew’s food on the old sailing ships was never in the gourmet class because during bad weather meals were usually improvised rather than created.
A dish that was easily prepared even during the stormiest of weather, was meat stew and biscuits mixed together to produce a moist hash. It wasn’t the crew’s favourite meal: they called it ‘dog’s vomit’.
Ultra dry ship’s biscuits were sometimes called ‘dog’s biscuits’. Like all biscuits in the old days (and like some today, such as Quely’s) they were baked twice to get rid of all traces of moisture, thus giving them a long shelf life.
In the early 19th century, seamen called pease pudding ‘dog’s body’, a term that was also used for any junior officer, especially a midshipman. In time it was used pejoratively to describe any male.
Later still, and in offices all over the country, a ‘dog’s body’ was the most junior member of the staff who did the wearisome tasks such as running errands and making the tea.
When the weather was really bad at sea, sailors would say it wasn’t ‘fit to turn a dog out’. The ‘dogwatch’ on ships was one of two hours at 4-6pm and 6-8pm.
This system was adopted to make an uneven number of watches so that no one had the same number of duties every day. But it eventually came to mean the last shift of those, such as policemen and firefighters, who have 24-hour duty rotas.
On sailing ships a ‘dog’s ear’ or a ‘dog’s lug’ was a small bight in a sail’s leech rope. But on land, a ‘dog’s ear’ refers to the turning down of the corner of a book page to mark’s one’s place — a vile habit and sheer vandalism.
People who love books use a thin strip of cardboard, either bought at bookshops or improvised. It is so easy to slice up a Christmas card and use the strips as pretty bookmarks.
In the Army, a ‘dog biscuit’ was the staple biscuit issued to troops on active service during the First World War. They were unsalted, unflavoured in any way and extremely hard. Soldiers also used ‘dog biscuit’ for an Army mattress. It was given that name because of its shape and colour…and its hardness.
The term ‘dogfight’ was coined in 1915 to describe air combat at close quarters. It was a well chosen word: real dogfights can be a tussle between two until one drops dead or retires, tail between its legs. And real dogfights, just like those in the air, can be communal affairs, a swirling uproar in which several take part.
In Fly Papers (1934), A.E. Ellington wrote: “The battle develops into a dogfight with small groups of machines engaging each other in a fight to the death.”
P.C. Wren, the author of Beau Geste (1924) and other bestsellers, wrote in Passing Show (1934): “The best sport of all was a dogfight, an all-onto-all scrap between a flight of British Bristol Scouts and a bigger flight of Fokkers. Everybody shooting up everybody, a wild and whirling melee from which every now and then someone went hurtling down to death in a blaze of smoke and fire.”
Dogs go ‘bow wow’ or ‘woof’ in English, but ‘hum hum’ in Albanian, ‘gongong’ in Indonesian, ‘haf-haf’ in Ukrainian and ‘vov’ in Danish.
And the Canary Islands have nothing whatever to do with canaries. The Romans found lots of wild dogs there and named the islands Insulae Canariae — the Islands of Dogs.