Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Intercalation

Yes, it’s a leap year and Friday is leap day, but why are we all leaping?

“Leap” means many things – mostly to do with jumping or bounding – but none seems to relate to Feb. 29, when we attach that quadrennial day to the calendar. In fact, adding Feb. 29 would seem to delay the leap from February – the worst month weatherwise in the year – to March, the most hopeful month, the one in which spring begins.

A century-old edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary fails to clarify the issue. In explaining “leap year,” it offers: “The name may refer to the fact that in the bissextile year, any fixed festival after February falls on the next week-day but one to that on which it fell in the preceding year, not on the next week-day as usual.” Back when feast days meant more to people than they do today, that sentence probably quickly made sense.

Perhaps we can be thankful that, for whatever reason, we call it leap day. Its other name is more of a mouthful: intercalary day.

Yet, intercalary day makes a lot more sense. It simply means to insert something – like a day – into a calendar.

And intercalating is exactly what we do Friday.

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