French Language Blog

Twice As Nice With Two Sixes – Leap Years In French Posted by on Mar 9, 2016 in Culture, Vocabulary

If you are chanceux (lucky), or maybe malchanceux (unlucky), last week was the first time in quatre ans (four years) that you were able to celebrate your anniversaire (birthday).

Tous les quatres ans (every four years) there is a leap year, but it wasn’t until last week that I realized I did not know how to say leap year in French!

Thinking in English got me nowhere when I tried to talk to people about l’année sautée (litterally leap/jump year), because it’s l’année bissextile in French. I had never seen or heard the word bissextile before, but in doing research for this post I found out the word does exist in English!

That still didn’t help me understand were the word came from, so I looked up l’eytmologie.

Bissextile can be broken down into two parts:


Bis – meaning two or twice (ie binocular, bicycle, bisexual)
Sextile – sixth

Deux six? Mais pourquoi !
Two sixes? But why!

C’est une longue histoire (it’s a long story) that goes back into les calendriers différentes (the different calendars) used in Europe. The need for un jour intercalaire (an intercalary day) is old, dating back to the Roman calendars that notre calendrier actuel (our modern calendar) comes from. Cependant (however) the day was not always le 29 février.

Le calendrier julien (the Julian Calendar) needed un jour intercalaire tous les quartes ans just like notre calendrier actuel. This day was a second 24 février, but it gets more complicated.

Les Romains (the Romans) had a different way of looking at le calendrier and depending on the day would count backwards from the start of the next month when talking about a specific date. Par exemple (for example), Le 24 was the sixth day before March.

The result of all of that is that during une année bissextile there were two “six days before March”.

Or in Latin:

ante diem bis sextum Kalendas Martias
« le sixième jour bis avant les calendes (le premier jour) de mars »
“the second sixth day before the calends (the first day) of March”

Le calendrier changed, but the name stuck. Even after the the day changed from le 24 to le 29, l’année bissextile remained. La vraie question (the real question) is whether having your anniversaire on the second 24th would be better than on le 29.

Laissez un commentaire (leave a comment) if your anniversaire is on le 29 février !


Keep learning French with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: John Bauer

John Bauer is an enthusiast for all things language and travel. He currently lives in France where he's doing his Master's. John came to France four years ago knowing nothing about the language or the country, but through all the mistakes over the years, he's started figuring things out.


  1. Bonnie:

    Merci beaucoup pour l’explication!! I knew how to say “leap year”, but did not know what the “deux six” meant! Next time there’s a leap year, I’ll use your explanation for my students.

    Merci encore!

  2. Jeanne B Bauer:

    I agree, very interesting!! Thanks for explaining:) Plus….I never knew how to say “leap year” in French ….now I do “Lanee Bissextile”:)

  3. Ian Tarrant:

    Wonderful explanation. Isn’t it interesting how complicated we can make life when we change things around?