»  Solutions to puzzles in my National Review Online Diary

  February 2004


In my February diary I posed the following brain-teaser.

Rossini was born February 29, 1792 and he died in November 1868. How many birthdays did he have?



This question has at least five possible answers, depending on how many nits you want to pick.

First, note that during Rossini's lifetime, February 29 occurred in the following years: 1792, 1796, 1804, 1808, 1812, 1816, 1820, 1824, 1828, 1832, 1836, 1840, 1844, 1848, 1852, 1856, 1860, 1864, and 1868. (The year 1800 is not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar. A century-year is only a leap year if it divides exactly by 400.) That's 19 years.

So possible answers are:

(A) One.  Nobody has more than one birthday — though you may, of course, God willing, have many birthday anniversaries.

(B) Eighteen.  Phooey to (A). Everybody uses "birthday" to mean "birthday anniversary." And the day of your birth is not generally considered to count among your birthdays, as can be seen from the fact that one year later you celebrate your first birthday.

(C) Nineteen.  Phooey to (B). If the day of your birth is not a birthday, what the heck is it?

(D) Seventy-six.  Any parent not possessed of a heart of stone tells a February-29 baby that "you were born on the last day of February, and that will be your birthday."

(E) Seventy-five.  … if you apply the principle in (B).

I nursed a faint hope that Happy Jack (who was, by the way, a melancholy hypochondriac, most of whose operas were very earnest affairs) might have spent some time in Russia, where they kept to the Julian calendar, so that the arithmetic might be even more convoluted … but this seems not to have happened. He spent most of his life commuting between Paris and various Italian cities, with occasional excursions to Vienna and London.