It’s bissextile …

Monday afternoon, I realized something fairly mundane but nonetheless rare: it was Leap Year and today was going to be Leap Day. Sitting at my desk, I turned to Michel and I started to tell him that (in French, because we almost always speak in French now), but I stopped short when I couldn’t find the word …

“Hé, Michel. Mercredi, on sera le jour de … euh … c’est le …
tu sais … le 29 février. Comment on dit ça en français?”
“Hey, Michel. Wednesday is the day of … um … it’s the …
you know … the 29th of February. How do you say that in French?”

“Oh, c’est la bissextile.”
“Oh, it’s the bissextile.”

<one raised eyebrow>

“Euh, la quoi?”
“Uh, the what?”

After my brain had a few seconds to parce the word and realize it had nothing to do with what I thought I’d heard, I started to wonder how the French came up with the name. It didn’t seem to have anything at all to do with leaping, or jumping, or hopping …

As usual, I did a little low-level research (meaning lots of Wikipedia articles). Michel was actually using the French adjective describing Leap Year. The adjective bissextile and the far less common noun for Leap Day, bissexte, come from the Latin word for the extra day in a Leap Year : bisextus, which itself is formed from bis (twice, second) plus sextus (the sixth). Okay, but why bisextus … why “the second sixth”?

Continue reading It’s bissextile …

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