Dog days

We're in them. Right now. The dog days are all around us. I had always thought, simplistically, that they were called the dog days because, as August descends, you are (or, at least, I am) poleaxed by the desire to lie stretched out in a patch of sun, rising only to lap from a bowl of water or to be patted on the head. The month demands slowness and limited brainpower, a general state of beatific passivity. With effort, I could chase a rabbit.

But they're called dog days not, surprisingly, because I want to reduce my levels of physical activity and mental agility to those of a dog. No, it goes back to the Romans, like most things. (Those Romans - fingers in everything.) They called the star Sirius the "Dog Star" because it was the brightest in the Canis Major (Large Dog) constellation. The dog days (or dies caniculares) became known as the sweaty, sweltering period - usually from early July to September - when Sirius rose at the same time as the sun.

To appease Sirius, the Romans would sacrifice a dog. And that basically sums up the dog days - they're a terrible time for dogs. In the brilliantly titled Clavis Calendaria: or a Compendious Analysis of the Calendar (it's compendious!), John Henry Brady describes the dog days as a period "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies". So the dogs were less lazy, more bonkers. Poor old dogs.

But Brady touched on the other characteristic of dog days - their strange and mysterious effect on human beings. Journos call it the "silly season", but it's silliness with a sinister edge, like the murderous grin of a clown.

You can't help but feel that, from Naomi Campbell in the dock chatting about "dirty-looking stones" to David Cameron telling the world from Hove (yes, Hove) that Iran does, in fact, have a nuclear weapon, the world has embraced surrealism, skewed by the August sun. What next? Will a hip-hop star announce that he is running for the presidency of a small, stricken country? Oh. Hello, Wyclef Jean.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science