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AMERICAN.COM

A Magazine of Ideas

The Politically Correct Calendar

Monday, December 24, 2012

Among the more irritating manifestations of political correctness, at least to this historian, is the attempt to replace the terms AD and BC with CE and BCE.

Among the more irritating manifestations of political correctness, at least to this historian, is the attempt to replace the terms AD and BC with CE and BCE.

CE stands for “common era” and BCE for “before the common era.” The reasoning here — if that’s the word — is that since approximately 60 percent of the world’s population is non-Christian, we shouldn’t use loaded terms such as AD (short for Anno Domini)and BC (before Christ).

To be sure, these terms assume the divinity of Jesus, but they do so only in the “decent obscurity of a foreign tongue,” just as Edward Gibbon wrote his racier footnotes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in Latin. Anno Domini means “in the year of our Lord,” but few people other than scholars seem to know that. Referring to, say, the “third century AD,” for instance, is a common solecism, found even in good history books. For the fastidious, AD is used to refer only to years, not centuries or millennia, and should be placed before the year (AD 250), not afterward.

Christ comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning “the anointed one,” and is sometimes used as a synonym for Messiah. Needless to say, only Christians accept Jesus as the Messiah. But how many English speakers, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the meaning of the word Christ? As far as I know it has never been polled, but I’d bet 90 percent or more think that Christ is Jesus’s last name, to the extent that they think about it at all. (Jews in ancient times didn’t even have last names.)

Jesus Christ was actually born 'before Christ,' probably between 6 and 4 BC, a good indication of just how unhistorical the whole business really is.

The argument for using the terms AD and BC, then, is: (1) for the overwhelming majority of English speakers, they do no more than mark historical periods; (2) they have been in use for a very long time (since about 1530 in English); and (3) they are familiar to everyone, however theologically problematic they may be for the tiny few who know Latin and Greek.

In that sense, AD and BC are analogous to the term "Indian" applied to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Aboriginal Americans acquired the name simply because Columbus thought he was in the East Indies, not what would later come to be called — thanks to Columbus’s befuddlement — the West Indies. But here we are, 500 years later, and they are still called Indians, even by Indians themselves. That is why the ever-so-politically-correct Smithsonian Institution named its magnificent museum in Washington the Museum of the American Indian, not the Museum of Native Americans.

And there is a big problem with the term “common era.” What on earth is common about it? The Western calendar became the standard one used throughout the world only in recent times (thanks to overwhelming Western technological and military superiority in the industrial era), not 2,000 years ago. Then, the Romans had only the haziest awareness of China (mostly because that’s where the fabulously expensive silk cloth came from) and none whatever of Japan or Southeast Asia, let alone the Americas. The reverse was equally true. And the Romans dated their calendar (essentially the one we use today, although tweaked in the late 16th century) from the mythical date of Rome’s founding, in the year we call 753 BC. The Romans used the term AUC (ab urbe condita — meaning “from the founding of the city”).

It was only in the early 6th century after the birth of Jesus that a Christian monk, Dionysius Exiguus, thought to make the birth of Jesus the zero year of the church calendar. (Translated from the Greek, Dionysius Exiguus means, roughly, “Dennis the Short.”) To do so, he apparently calculated the date by working backward through the reigns of the various popes and emperors to St. Peter and Augustus and then more or less guessing.

If one is going to get rid of BC and AD, to avoid the whispery, distant echoes of long-ago theological assumptions, we should use BJ and AJ.

He was almost certainly off by a few years. Herod the Great is known to have died in 4 BC, and he was alive when Jesus was born, according to the Gospels. So Jesus Christ was actually born “before Christ,” probably between 6 and 4 BC, a good indication of just how unhistorical the whole business really is.

Using Dionysius Exiguus’s guesstimate of the year of the birth of Jesus as the zero year for the Western calendar only came into general use a couple of centuries after he died. The Venerable Bede, for instance, who died in AD 735, pushed for it in his influential writings. By the year 1000 it had become more or less standard in Western Europe.

However inaccurate, the zero year of the calendar that the world uses is the year that Jesus was born. And whatever one’s stand on his divinity or lack thereof, Jesus was a historical figure of immense importance to world history. Like Columbus’s accidental discovery of America, that is a historical reality that cannot and should not be erased. So if one is going to get rid of BC and AD, to avoid the whispery, distant echoes of long-ago theological assumptions, we should use BJ and AJ, not the utterly bloodless, designed-by-a-bureaucratic-committee and frankly stupid terms BCE and CE.

Or, better yet, we could all just relax and continue to use the old terms and let their etymologies be nothing more than what they are: fascinating little windows into the past.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “Debt and the Constitution,” “The Scariest Day of My Life,” “Churchill and the Power of Words,” and “George Orwell, Call Your Office.”  Roger Scruton discusses “Speaking Neatly.” Lee Harris says “Stop Apologizing for Our Liberties.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group