Bask in the Sun and Learn the Etymology of These Summer Words

Friday, May 203 min read

As warmer weather is in the daily forecast, we’re digging out our sandals and swimsuits, checking up on AC units, and, if we’re lucky, planning a trip to the beach. In preparation for these sunny days, let’s take a closer look at the words and phrases you’re likely to hear in the summer weather reports.


“Muggy” describes hot and humid weather — the kind that feels like a steam room and encourages folks to skip outside plans. This word first appeared in English in 1746, meaning “damp and close, warm and humid,” perhaps coming from the Old Norse mugga, meaning “drizzling mist.”

El Niño and La Niña

These words are part of the climate phenomenon ENSO — El Niño-Southern Oscillation. They refer to a climate pattern tracking unusual warming and cooling of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. While these weather patterns impact the United States closer to August, affecting the severity of the hurricane season, the phenomenon tends to originate around Christmas time. When fishermen off the west coast of South America were the first to notice this pattern, they called it El Niño, meaning “the boy child,” named after baby Jesus. In 1980, scientists noticed the opposite pattern, cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures, and called it La Niña, or “little girl.”


Meteorologists start using this descriptor when temperatures start to break the 90/100 F mark. This phrase for a “very hot day” first appeared in English in 1874. It comes from the verb “scorch,” meaning “to burn the surface of something with flame or heat.” Anyone who has sat on leather car upholstery on a 90 F sunny day will understand the meaning of “scorcher.”

Dog Days of Summer

This phrase refers to the hottest part of the summer, generally July and August in the Northern Hemisphere. This summer idiom comes from ancient Rome, referring to when the constellation Sirius — the dog star — appeared to rise before the sun, which happens around July. Sometimes the phrase “canicular days” is used, still referring to the canine constellation.

Heat wave

A heat wave generally means a period when the temperature is at or above 90 F for several days in a row. The phrase appeared in English first in 1890, meaning “period of excessive hot weather.” Synonyms include “high summer,” “hot wave,” and “warm front,” but they all mean it’s time to stay inside with air conditioning.

Blackberry summer

This expression first appeared in English in the mid-19th century. It refers to the time when blackberries are at their ripest, often after a burst of cold air. It was described in a 1987 Esquire piece: “Sometimes it occurs as early as May or even as late as September, but the pattern is always the same. For weeks the sun lolls around hot in the sky like a dog panting on its leash. Then, without notice, a breeze shuffles in, a wind hits hard as the thunder begins; the rain falls fast for a few hours, maybe a couple of days. When the storm clears, the blackberry bushes spill open into clusters of pink and white flowers.”


Sun worshippers should be familiar with this acronym from a bottle of sunscreen. It stands for “sun protection factor,” and refers to the level of protection received from a given lotion. The SPF number is multiplied by the number of minutes a person could typically be in the sun without getting a sunburn. For example, if someone who typically burns after 15 minutes is wearing SPF 30, they technically have protection for 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours. However, most products advise reapplying after exposure to water or every 2 hours.  

However, sunscreen was originally created for the ski slopes, not the beach. Swiss chemist and mountain climber Franz Greiter was tired of getting sunburns on his treks, and he created a product called “Glacier Cream” in 1946. Almost 20 years later he invented the SPF scale to rate the sun-protection products. His original product had an SPF of 2, but the Piz Buin brand is still producing higher SPF products today.

Featured image credit: AleksandarNakic/ iStock

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