Anno Domini

“Xmas” may be a perfectly legitimate abbreviation, but I confess that cannot bring myself to use “C.E.” in place of “A.D.” in our system of numbering years. A.D., of course, is an abbreviation for “anno domini” (not, despite what a surprising number of my students think, “after death”) and means “in the year of the Lord,” i.e. it indicates the number of years since Jesus’ birth.* Since time stretches back quite a long ways before Jesus’ birth, we have proleptically imposed a system of dates B.C. (“Before Christ”), with the scale stretching infinitely backward in time.

Of course, not everyone believes that Jesus is Lord, nor that he is the Christ, i.e. the anointed, i.e. the Messiah. But European culture and its system of dating have triumphed over the world. Some people, therefore, have promoted the alternative abbreviations C.E. and B.C.E., for “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” respectively. (“Current” is sometimes substituted for “Common.”) These abbreviations were originally, I understand, an innovation of Jewish scholars, and that I can respect, given how important abiding by strict and minute rules is to certain Jewish traditions. However, the promotion of these as normal usage for a secular society is a bit much – I dare say, politically correct in the worst sense of that expression. (The proponents of “C.E.” don’t seem to mind, after all, that the days of the week come from Scandinavian paganism, nor that some of the months of the year are named after Roman gods.)

Proponents of C.E./B.C.E. say that C.E. can stand for Christian Era if people want it to, thereby providing the creative ambiguity that is so prized in diplomacy. But I say that creative ambiguity should rightly be applied to A.D. and B.C., since we’re still using the Christian-inspired date of Jesus’ birth, after all. “Anno dignitatis” is no less meaningless than “Common Era,” and B.C. can mean “before current [times].” Alternately, we can simply declare that A.D. and B.C. don’t mean anything at all, just as the administrators of the S.A.T. have for their acronym or Harry S. Truman did with his initial.

* Although we now think that the initial calculations were off, and that Jesus was born somewhere between 7 and 2 BC.

2 thoughts on “Anno Domini

  1. I had to read this for West. Civ. II as a cultural event. I knew most of this information beforehand, except for the origin of C.E. in that it was derived from Jewish scholars. I totally agree with the obvious hypocrisy of using the days of the week that were named in honor of pagan deities.I find the days of the week in Portuguese to be the most interesting in that Sunday is the first day, then Monday is “the second day,” and so on in the Portuguese vocabulary. Should we just rename all things to be politically correct much like the French did in their radical revolution?

  2. Yeah, it’s the Jacobinism of “CE” that I find the most off-putting.

    Apparently Quakers used to give months of the year and days of the week ordinal numbers, on the principle that they didn’t want to recognize Mars, Thor, Saturn, Janus, et al.

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