Q&A: ‘Leaped’ or ‘leapt’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, leaps and bounds…

Q: Hi AWC, I just noticed today’s date! Is it true that February is the only month with 29 days?

A: Nope, they all have 29. Some even have one or two more.

Q: Oh ha ha. I’m talking about “Leap Years“ of course! Why are they called that?

A: Well, for starters, you can put away your capital letters – “leap year” is just fine. As for the name, it’s no real mystery. Normally a date will shuffle through the days of the week one by one with each passing year (because 364 is a multiple of 7 – one off the usual 365). However, on a “leap year“, it quite simply leaps an extra day. 

Q: Amazing, for once “leap” actually means leap!

A: Yeah. So if your last birthday was on a Friday, your next one after 29 February will be on a Sunday, rather than the usual Saturday.

Q: But my birthday was on a Tuesday last year.

A: It was just an example.

Q: Can we use my birthday though?

A: Seriously?

Q: Yes please.

A: Ugh fine. If your last birthday was on a TUESDAY, your next one after 29 February will be on a Thursday, rather than the usual Wednesday.

Q: Okay, now do if someone had a birthday on a Sunday last year.

A: We’re not doing this any more.

Q: Why does this keep happening?

A: Because you end up exhausting us and we refuse to cooperate.

Q: No, I mean why does the leap year thing keep happening?

A: Ohhhh. Right. Well, it’s simple really. The Earth doesn’t take exactly 365 days to revolve around the sun. It’s more like 365 days and six hours. So to keep everything in the same place, every four years we play catch up by inserting an extra day.

Q: So why did February end up with it? A bit random, no?

A: It all comes from the Roman calendar once having just 10 months – clearly seen in the likes of “September” (seven), “October” (eight), “November” (nine) and “December” (ten). When Julius Caesar’s astronomers pointed out that 12 months would make more sense (each month being close to the cycle of the other big thing in the sky – the moon), they tacked on January and February. So the 29th of February was actually adding one day on to the END.

Q: Makes sense! So every four years, like clockwork.

A: Well, not quite. Because, speaking of clocks, the EXACT time it takes for Earth to do a lap of the sun is actually 365 days, five hours and about 48 minutes. So, because of THIS, every hundred years is NOT a leap year, despite having one four years prior and after.

Q: Waaaait, but I know someone born 29 February 2000 – that WAS a leap year!

A: Okay okay, the MORE EXACT time is 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and a bunch of seconds. So, to fine tune the system even further, every FOUR HUNDRED years, they leave leap years alone – only skipping the other three centuries. For example, 1700, 1800 and 1900 weren’t leap years, but 1600 and 2000 were.

Q: A leap century! 

A: Exactly.

Q: Where does the word “leap” leap into existence from anyway?

A: “Leap” is pretty old – Germanic in origin and arriving around the 12th century, with an original meaning that was more akin to “run” than “jump”. In fact, the word “lope” is directly related. 

Q: Oh, my uncle and aunt loped when they got married!

A: You mean they “eloped”!

Q: No way, they LOPED – it was a shotgun marriage and my grandpa was angry!

A: Oh, right. 

Q: So what is the past tense of “leap“? Is it leaped OR leapt?

A: Macquarie Dictionary states that “leapt” and “leaped” can be used interchangeably, but evidence indicates that leapt is more common – especially outside North America.

Q: Interesting!

A: Even more interesting is that “leaped” used to be the dominant form everywhere, but “leapt”, well um, leapt over it around the start of the 20th century.

Q: I suppose it’s just following precedent. Such as “slept”, “crept”, “kept” and “wept” – not “sleeped”, “creeped”, “keeped” or “weeped”.

A: You’re right – in all of those cases, the “-ed” variant isn’t used. But compare with the closer spelling form of “heap” and “heaped” – we don’t say “heapt”.

Q: So why did “leapt” endure at all?

A: It’s not entirely certain, but appears to have evolved due to speech patterns. It’s simply easier to say “leapt” and mirrors MOST similar sounding words like the ones you mentioned above. By the way, English has a history of “ed” and “t” variants – such as learned/learnt and burned/burnt. We even chatted about leaned/leant previously.

Q: So we did! Any final tidbits?

A: Absolutely! Leap-frog has been a children’s game since at least the 1590s (when it was referenced in Shakespeare’s Henry V), but didn’t gain its figurative meaning (to skip something or advance) until the 1700s. 

Q: Ribbit!

A: Around the same time – the 1720s – we saw the term “leaps and bounds“ emerge. 

Q: That was bound to happen. Pfft.

A: Hilarious. And on a related note, to “leap tall buildings in a single bound“ arrived in the 1940s as a description of comic book hero Superman’s powers. 

Q: And Americans are more likely to say that Superman “leaped over the building”, while British or Australian would claim that he “leapt” over it, yes?

A: That’s right. Although it should be noted that neither group would be able to spot that Clark Kent is in fact the same guy.

Q: Well I’m glad we leapt into this topic on such a unique date.

A: True. Although it’s also very likely that someone will be reading this on a future date.

Q; Perhaps it might be in the year 2100 as they’re wondering why they don’t have an extra day coming up!

A: That’s quite the leap, but sure.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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