Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Russian Language Notes - Hot Dogs

Kanikuli - Каникулы

It's a barmy 9 degrees Centigrade today in Newcastle; the sun is shining, spring is in the air, and after the gloom if the winter, my thoughts turn to my holidays in the Summer.  

The Russian word for holidays is kanikuli (Каникулы), which I have always thought was a little odd.  My knowledge of Russian isn't that great, but I couldn't spot any any obvious relationship with other Russian words, or any Latin cognates that I could identify.   

A few years ago when I was brushing up my French, in preparation for a holiday there, I discovered that une canicule was a French word for heat wave. It didn't occur to me to delve further - I was satisfied with my own explanation that the word was obviously imported into the Russian language along with many other French words and influences, owing to the fact that the Russian nobility in Tsarist times used to speak French rather than Russian to distinguish themselves from the lower classes.

I thought no more about it until I read "The Etymologicon" by Mark Forsyth last year and discovered that there was a chapter called "Dog Days" about Sirius - the Dog Star. This is the largest star in the Great Dog or Canis Major constellation. It stems from the Ancient Greek word for dog - cyon. Which gives us cynic (another story, but go read the book).

The ancient Greeks believed that their country was so hot during the summer owing to the combined rays of the Sun and Sirius - the ancient Greeks worked out that during the period 24 July to 24 August, Sirius was not visible in the night sky because it rises and sets at the same time as the Sun.  The word Syrius means "scorching" but the ancient Greek also referred to it as cyon - dog. This period derived its name from the Dog Star and became known as canicula in Latin, giving us the phrase "Dog days" and the Russians "kanikuli".

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