Word of the Day: Bissextile

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, thanks to www.WordGenius.com, is bissextile, an adjective that means “(of a year) having the extra day (29 February) of a leap year,” or “anything related to the extra day of a leap year.” According to www.dictionary.com, it means “containing or noting the extra day of leap year.” According to www.etymonline.com, the word comes from Latin and enters the English language in the “1590s (adj.), in reference to Roman leap year, from Late Latin (annus) bisextilis ‘leap year,’ more literally ‘the twice sixth-day, (a year) containing a second sixth (day).’ To keep the Julian calendar consistent with the sun, the sixth day (by inclusive reckoning) before the Calends of March was doubled every four years. It corresponds to our February 24th. From Latin bissextus/bisextis (dies), from bis ‘twice’ (see bis-) + sextus ‘sixth (day before the First of March),’ from sex ‘six’ (see six).”

So today is Leap Day, a day we experience every four years in the Gregorian calendar because our estimation of days doesn’t exactly line up with the Earth’s revolving around the Sun. It takes the Earth 365.24 days to revolve around the sun, so every 4 years we add an extra day. It took humans a while to figure that out, though.

Early calendars were based on the cycles of the moon as well as on the Earth’s revolution (called lunisolar calendars), but the lunar calendar is off by 11 days, so ancient peoples would occasionally add an extra month to the year so that the solar year wouldn’t get too far off. But these intercalary (or interstitial) months were added kind of randomly, so it was a bit difficult for people to even know what year they were in (of course, keep in mind that many groups measured their years on the basis of the kings who had reigned in the past).

The Romans initially had a 10-month year that included some random amount of time in the winter that did not have a monthly label. Then they added January and February, but doing so did not eliminate the problem of the length of the solar year. So they employed an intercalary month called Mercedonius, which was not added to the beginning or end of the year but rather inserted into February, and which lasted for 23 days. The problem was that there was no set rule about whether or not to insert this month. Consuls would add it if they though it benefitted them politically.

Then along came Julius Caesar. He had spent some time in Egypt, and he got it into his head that the Egyptian solar calendar was superior to the lunisolar calendar in use by the Romans, so he decided to implement a new calendar. The Egyptian calendar had 365 days, but it occasionally added an extra month to make up for the lost time. Caesar, working with an astrologer from Egypt, decided that it would be more consistent to just add one extra day every fourth year.

In the year 46 BCE, Caesar added two months to the Roman calendar in order to make up time, since apparently the consuls had not been that faithful about adding intercalary months. Then, in 45 BCE, the Julian calendar went into effect.

The Julian calendar was ingenious, and it solved a problem, but it wasn’t perfect. Caesar thought that the solar year was 365.25 days, but in fact it’s a tiny bit less than that. By the 16th century, the calendar was off by about 10 days. That is when Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a new calendar that kept the Leap Day but eliminated it in years that end in 00, except for once every four years. So while we normally say that Leap Day (or Leap Year) is once every four years, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not Leap Years, and the year 2100 will not be a Leap Year, though the year 2000 was a Leap Year. So far, the Gregorian calendar seems to have fixed the problem of the Julian calendar. (Much of the above came from https://www.history.com/news/why-do-we-have-leap-year).

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance, the main character, Frederick, completes his apprenticeship with a group of pirates (his nursemaid misheard his dying father’s request that Frederick be apprenticed to a pilot). He leaves the band of pirates pledging to go after them since they are living a life of crime. However, in Act 2, the pirates return because they have realized that Fredericks birthday was actually on February 29, and his apprenticeship is to last until his 21st birthday. Of course, by the end of the show he is re-united with his Mabel, and all is well that ends well. But Pirates does point out the humorous situation of being born on February 29th, the anomaly created by a solar year which is just a little too long.

“In 1980, to commemorate the centenary of Pirates, Joseph Papp produced the opera for Broadway. Papp was best known for the New York Shakespeare Festival, but he was also a G&S lover. The production was launched in Central Park, then transferred to the Broadway Stage, where it ran for over 800 performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Director (Wilford Leach) and Best Actor (Kevin Kline). Linda Ronstadt was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical. The production toured nationally, and also had a run in London’s West End” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7JYLc8CrE0).

So, happy birthday to all those born on the bissextile day. Enjoy it, especially since it comes only once every four years.

Here are some (relatively) famous people born on the bissextile day:

Dicky Pearce (1836), baseball’s first shortstop and the inventor of the bunt.

John Philip Holland (1840), father of the submarine.

William Harvey Carney (1840), Civil War soldier, first African-American recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Jimmy Dorsey (1904), band leader.

Al Rosen (1924), baseball player, 1953 AL MVP, and baseball executive (b. Spartanburg, SC).

Henri Richard (1936), Canadian hockey great.

Dennis Farina (1944), American actor.

Taylor Twellman (1980), American footballer.

The picture is from that 1980 production of Pirates of Penzance.

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