[For the OxfordWords blog:] The language of leap years

What have Italian composer Rossini and American rapper Ja Rule got in common? A number of possible answers may leap to mind here, but the one I’m looking for is that the two musicians were both born on a date that is mysteriously elusive: 29 February. Except that 2012 is a leap year, and so this year the estimated 5 million or so leaplings, leapers, or leap-year babies around the world actually get to blow out the candles on the cake for their quadrennial celebration. During the intervening common years, however, the timing of their birthday festivities depends on the laws of whichever land they’re in. In New Zealand, a leaplings official birthday is deemed to be 28 February, whereas in Britain it’s 1 March. If you timed it right, you could fly from one country to the other for the world’s longest birthday.

A leap in the dark

But why do we have leap years in the first place? To venture briefly into the world of astrophysics, this is to do with the fact that it takes slightly longer than 365 days for the Earth to travel once around the Sun. In fact, it takes about 365¼ days to complete one orbit, so if we did nothing about this discrepancy then our calendar would gradually become out of sync with the seasons by a quarter of a day per year. Luckily, the Romans had the foresight to resolve this problem by adding an additional day (called an intercalary day) to the month of February every four years to prevent their Julian calendar from drifting too much. Since the Roman year began in March with the advent of spring, February was the logical month to sneak that extra day into. The practice was retained in our modern Gregorian calendar introduced by the Roman Catholic Church in 1582 in an attempt to time the Easter celebrations more accurately.

The etymology of the slightly puzzling English term leap year is uncertain, but it’s thought that the name originated in late Middle English. But other languages use different terms: in German (Schaltjahr) and Chinese (闰年(rùnnián)) , the terms used literally translate as the more technically accurate intercalary year. On the other hand, the Romance languages and Russian use année bissextile (French), anno bisestile (Italian), año bisiesto (Spanish), and високо́сный год (Russian), terms that derive from the Latin bis sextum (bissextile or “second sixth” in English), due to the fact that in a Roman leap year, the sixth day before March calends (sextum) was counted twice (bis). In Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, a leap year can also be referred to as l’ann d’ la baleina (in dialect), literally the whale’s year, according to the belief that whales give birth only during leap years.

Lovers’ Leap

There is a universal cultural tendency to see leap years as subversive and as temporary stretches of time when the normal order of the universe is reversed. Sometimes this can relate to affairs of the heart. For example, in some northern European and Anglo-Saxon countries such as Britain, there is a humorous tradition that women may propose marriage to men only during leap years, and sometimes more specifically only on 29 February itself. If a man turns down the proposal, then apparently he must compensate the woman with a silk gown (something which British fashion retailers might do well to think about, even if gender equality has come on in leaps and bounds since then).

Meanwhile, in the villages of southern Germany, there is a tradition of boys putting up a small May tree in their love interest’s back garden during the night before May Day. In leap years, however, it becomes the girls’ turn to put up the trees.

Look before you leap

In many southern European countries leap years are simply considered as harbingers of bad luck, particularly when it comes to farming and fertility. A whole host of Italian proverbs such as anno bisesto, anno funesto (literally leap year, doom year) warn against planning certain activities for a leap year, for example anno che bisesta non si sposa e non s’innesta (in a leap year you don’t get married and you don’t graft), since anno bisesto tutte le donne senza sesto (in a leap year, women are erratic). Oddly enough, however, coins minted during a leap year are considered to be lucky charms.

Even today in Russia and in other nearby countries such as Ukraine, leap years are still considered unlucky times to get married or buy a house. It’s also believed that a leap year is likely to bring about more freak weather patterns and a greater risk of death all round, a sentiment echoed in Taiwan where parents are thought more likely to die during a leap year. In the traditional Chinese calendar (as well as in the Hebrew and Hindu calendars) a whole leap month, rather than just a day, is added to the year, which is technically known as an embolismic month. There is a saying in Taiwan that because of the greater risk to the parents’ life during this time, a married daughter should return home during the leap month and bring pig trotter noodles to her parents to wish them good health and good fortune. On a somewhat contradictory note, the older generations in China today maintain that it’s good luck – and not bad – to get married during a leap year. Maybe China should look at marketing itself as the destination wedding country of choice for 2012.

Leaping to conclusions…

Finally, you may recognise the familiar rhyme below, which is one of our most useful mnemonics for remembering how many days there are in each month. Many people can recite the first three lines, but do you know the rest?

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
Which has but twenty-eight days clear
And twenty-nine in each leap year.

Now, having firmly established that February 2012 will have twenty-nine days this year – how strange would it be to wake up tomorrow on 30 February?

This article was originally published as Leap years around the world: from freak weather patterns to good fortune and baby whales on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, OxfordWords, on February 29, 2012

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