Origin and usage
The compound noun leap year has been used in English since the 14th century. It is a combination of the nouns leap and year and may originate in the idea that after February in such a year, feast days fall two days after they did the previous year, thus giving the impresssion of leaping over the intervening day.
This year is a leap year, meaning that February has 29 days instead of the usual 28. This is to adjust the calendar to the earth’s rotation around the sun, which takes 365.25 days rather than the 365 included in the calendar three years out of four. Another name for a leap year is a bissextile year, a term derived from Latin meaning ‘twice the sixth day’. You can find out more by reading Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord article on the phrase written in 2016, the last time there was a leap year. There are a number of traditions associated with February 29, one of the most widespread being the idea that this is the only day when it is permissible for a woman to propose. In some places, leap years and February 29 in particular are regarded as being unlucky. Those born on leap day, called ‘leaplings’ by some, may well feel aggrieved at only being able to celebrate their birthdays on the correct day once every four years.
Today is the 200th birthday of Sir John Tenniel, whose wonderful illustrations graced the original ‘Alice’ books by Lewis Carroll. The absurdity of having a birthday once every four years might well have appealed to both the author and his character, though I am not aware of any references to it in the books. There are several posts on Carroll and his use of language in the blog archive: you can find out about Alice and Humour here, while Carroll’s exuberant linguistic inventiveness is celebrated here and here.
“This is Leap Year, and ancient proverbs say,
If lads don’t leap this year, the lasses may.”
calendar year, the Gregorian calendar, bissextile