Until this week, I have never researched what “dog days of summer” really means. It is just something I grew up hearing my great-grandmother Clifford say. Clifford was a character. She had all sorts of sayings, many of which I can’t put into print. No one really knew when her birthday was. She chose February 14 for the Social Security Administration and so that everyone could easily remember it. No one was exactly sure of the year she was born either. I am pretty sure she made that up, too! I do think we celebrated her 90th birthday more than once! She loved a good party. She also loved her snuff and she was the only woman I knew who did this. I still have an old Levi Garrett tin that was hers!
Clifford was as superstitious as she was clever. If you went to her house, as I did daily when she lived nearby, you knew not to rock the rocking chair if it was empty. Nobody wants to invite evil into the house. She believed if her nose was itching, company was coming; that meant she’d “scorch up” a pan of cornbread for the visitors. She taught me to throw salt over my left should if I spill any. Although it makes a bigger mess, I still do this! She adamantly believed that bad news happened in threes. Whenever there was a death or a tragedy in the community, she’d issue warnings to everyone that they could be next.
To Clifford, “dog days” were the hottest days of the year and they were a time where the dogs would go mad and people were likely to join them. “It’s the dog days, everybody and everything is meaner. You gotta be careful,” she’d warn. Her general belief was that people and animals were more cantankerous during this period than any other time of the year. Snakes were meaner. Dogs were meaner, of course. We have never not had a dog around and my favorite dog of my childhood was a black lab named Dino. He was a good-natured dog and didn’t bother anyone. But if in late July or early August, Clifford looked out and saw me with him, she would warn me that he could become a “mad” dog and that I needed to “leave him be ‘til the days passed.” I asked Daddy if what his grandmother told me was true. He told me that Dino had had all of his shots, but not to play with him anywhere near Clifford’s house. He was careful not to call it an “old wives’ tale.”
Another of her dog days’ beliefs was that the birds would go quiet until the dog days were over. Additionally, she assumed that everyone knew if you got hurt during dog days, the wounds would take twice as long to heal. She had no way of knowing it, but her description of dog days gave me terrible anxiety! I never asked anyone about the root of the term. All of my grandparents and great-grandparents had used it, but no one else defined it like Clifford.
I have thought about her so much this week as we are indeed in the dog days as we reached record heat. I have carefully watched all of my dogs (and friends) for signs of madness. My little dogs would rather be left alone to sleep in the shade or splash in their kiddie pool. Leroy, the lab we rescued in February has shown no new signs of madness. All of the people I know are choosing to stay home, not because they are afraid of mad dogs, but because home is where their air conditioner is! Thankfully, I have not encountered any extra meanness from people or animals, but I have seen more snakes being killed. Maybe they are more aggressive during this time.
The term “dog days” actually comes from astronomy as there are two dog stars, Canis Major and Canis Minor. All of Clifford’s beliefs were loosely based on Greek legend, but I doubt she knew that. Instead of boring you with those details, I’ll let you do your own research.
I will tell you that anything scientific you may read on the Internet pales in comparison to what my feisty snuff-spittin’ great grandmother taught me!
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.