Words at Play

7 Words to Beat the Summer Heat

The heat may have gone to your head, but that doesn't mean your vocabulary has to go to the dogs.

sleeping baby cat resting its head on a tiny pillow

adjective 1 : marked by inactivity or repose : tranquilly at rest 2 : causing no trouble or symptoms

She was standing on the causeway with her aunt and a group of cousins feeding the chickens, at that quiet moment in the life of the farmyards before the afternoon milking-time. The great buildings round the hollow yard were as dreary and tumbledown as ever, but over the old garden-wall the straggling rose-bushes were beginning to toss their summer weight, and the gray wood and old bricks of the house, on its higher level, had a look of sleepy age in the broad afternoon sunlight, that suited the quiescent time.
— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 1860

Sir Francis Bacon may be responsible for pulling this word from its Latin parentage into its English existence; he wrote in The Advancement of Learning (1605) "For the nature of man doth extremely covet to have somewhat in his understanding fixed and unmovable, and as a rest and support of the mind. And, therefore, as Aristotle endeavoureth to prove, that in all motion there is some point quiescent…." The word traces to the Latin verb quiescere, meaning "to become quiet; rest." Today the English word quiescent is used to mean "tranquilly at rest," or, in medical contexts, "causing no trouble or symptoms." It is also sometimes used to describe silent letters especially in Semitic languages like Hebrew.


adjective : sluggish, groggy

A light summer soup turns hefty with a dollop of cream. And the addition of a butter or olive oil sauce can transform the leanest, poached fish into a dietary hazard—leaving the diner feeling as logy as a hot, humid night.
— Molly O'Neill, The New York Times Magazine, 13 June 1993

We don't know quite where logy (which has been in use since the mid-1800s) comes from; etymologists' best guess is that the source is the Dutch word log, meaning "heavy." (That word shares an ancestor with the Middle Low German luggich, meaning "lazy.") Logy (also spelled loggy) is also occasionally used to mean "lacking resistance" and "not recovering quickly when stress is released," as in "a logy piece of rubber."


adjective 1 : drooping or flagging from or as if from exhaustion : weak 2 : sluggish in character or disposition : listless 3 : lacking force or quickness of movement : slow

In these languid midsummer days, humans who feel the urge to take it easy but remain burdened by a recalcitrant work ethic might do well to consider that laziness is perfectly natural, perfectly sensible and shared by nearly every other species on the planet. Contrary to the old fables about the unflagging industriousness of ants, bees, beavers and the like, field biologists engaged in a new specialty known as time budget analysis are discovering that the great majority of creatures spend most of their time doing nothing much at all.
— Natalie Angier, The New York Times, 30 July 1991

Languid has been used since the late 1500s in its "weak" sense. It wasn't until the early 1700s that the word was used to describe days when the most sensible thing to do is sip lemonade in the shade or float on water in something inflatable. The word traces back to Latin languēre, meaning "to languish."

There's another word languid—a noun meaning "the inner tongue or flat plate opposite the mouth of an organ flue pipe," but that piece inside the pipe is more often called a languet. Languet comes from langue, meaning "tongue"—also the source of the word language.


noun 1 a : a state of mental and motor inactivity with partial or total insensibility b : a state of lowered physiological activity typically characterized by reduced metabolism, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature that occurs in varying degrees especially in hibernating and estivating animals 2 : apathy, dullness

A dark shadow ran along the river, rolling over and covering up the sparkle of declining sunlight. A big white cloud sailed slowly across the darkening sky, and hung to the westward as if waiting for the sun to join it there. Men and things shook off the torpor of the hot afternoon and stirred into life under the first breath of the sea breeze.
— Joseph Conrad, Almayer's Folly, 1895

While people may be able to shake off torpor that sets in when the heat takes away the will to get things done, it's a bit harder for animals, for whom the word has a more technical meaning. An animal in torpor is in a state of lowered body temperature and metabolic activity, usually because of extreme heat or cold. The torpor can last a few hours or it can last for months. Torpid, the related adjective also from Latin torpēre, meaning "to be sluggish or numb," also has both technical and nontechnical applications.


adjective 1 a : causing or tending to cause sleep b : tending to dull awareness or alertness 2 : of, relating to, or marked by sleepiness or lethargy

Their seriocomic journey is colored by grace notes of direction and performance, but it’s also rather undercooked in the script department, the somewhat uneventful, not-particularly-insightful progress proceeding at a pace somewhere between leisurely and soporific.
— Dennis Harvey, Variety, 27 Jan. 2016

Soporific is perfect for describing steamy summer afternoons when a siesta is all anyone is good for. Or you can use it to describe things that make you drowsy, like a full belly or boring lecture. It's also used in more technical contexts as both an adjective and noun: a soporific drug or medicine causes or tends to cause sleep, and can itself also be called a soporific. The word comes from the Latin sopor, meaning "deep sleep." Sopor is related to somnus, Latin for "sleep," and the name of the Roman god of sleep.


noun : one that lags or lingers

Fifth Avenue is not usually a New York City laggard, but it’s been a decade since a major development has gone up on the tony stretch.
— Rich Bockmann, The Real Deal (therealdeal.com), 8 July 2016

A laggard is someone or something that lags behind or lingers where others move along more quickly. It comes from the noun lag, which now usually means "a space of time between events or phenomena" but originally, in the early 1500s, meant "one that stays or falls behind." This meaning is evident in the verb lag, meaning "to stay or fall behind," which is only slightly newer than the noun. Lag is thought to be of Scandinavian origin, but laggard is an English construction in the tradition of drunkard and dullard that dates to the early 1700s, which makes it about the same age as the adjective laggard meaning "lagging or tending to lag."


adjective 1 : averse to activity or exertion : indolent; also : torpid 2 : slow to respond (as to stimulation or treatment) 3 a : markedly slow in movement, flow, or growth b : economically inactive or slow

By and by came several canal-boats, at intervals of a quarter of a mile, standing up to Hooksett with a light breeze, and one by one disappeared round a point above. With their broad sails set, they moved slowly up the stream in the sluggish and fitful breeze, like one-winged antediluvian birds, and as if impelled by some mysterious counter-current.
—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849

The word sluggish comes from slug, and so calls to mind one of those plump little (or not so little) shell-less snails that leave shimmery trails across garden stones. But as is so often the case with words, the history of slug surprises: when slug first was used in the early 1400s it referred not to a gastropod but to a habitually lazy person, a sluggard.

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