Thursday, October 4, 2007

Naming Years

In my history reading lately, I've noticed that dates are being designated with CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era) instead of AD (Anno Dominae = Year of Our Lord) and BC (Before Christ). I figured it was a recent change to accomodate non-Christians, maybe related to the recent highlighting of Islam and Muslim culture. But based on my research, it turns out to be much older than that. According to Wikipedia, CE and BCE have been used by Jews for at least a century when using dates from the Gregorian calendar. And Communist China has used the Chinese equivalent of "common era" since it adopted the western system of years in 1949. The move toward using CE and BCE apparently started with religious writers in an effort to reach readers of all faiths in a non-offensive manner. The adoption of CE and BCE more generally is still in process among university historians and museums like the Smithsonian, but I'm seeing it in popular history books more often.

Looking at a variety of websites discussing the change, it is entertaining to see the arguments against it. Surprisingly few of the arguments were religious; they appeared to mostly be of the "I don't want to learn a new system" variety. One of the most common was the idea that if we are going to change systems to avoid references to Christ, we should find another way to calculate dates than from Christ's birth (even though he was born in 4-7 BC); some of these comments were from people who really want a complete new systems, other were from the "isn't this absurd" camp. The funniest was one person who couldn't see the point of confusing people with a new-fangled system when everyone understands the old BC/AD system - but then he used AD incorrectly by placing it after the year instead of before it. Other people complain that CE and BCE are too similar and thus hard to read; but I think two vs. three letters is actually easier to distinguish. The best argument was that using BCE and CE is just political correctness, without any meaningful content; this is pretty close to the actual reasons of avoiding causing unneccesary pain to other people, which is what the Religious Tolerance website bases its decision to use CE and BCE on, just without the feeling for other people. Regardless of the arguments, the change appears to be happening, slowly but surely - at least more surely than the proposed change to the metric system years ago.

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