CE vs. AD
A reader takes issue with my use of the designation CE instead of AD in this sentence: “A mix of these tribes migrated to England in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.” Here is the reader’s reaction:
Give me a break with the New Age (CE) crap. You can’t make-up words and slogans to change history or our calendar. It’s AD period.
Clearly, the reader prefers the traditional Western designation of AD and BC to the equivalent CE and BCE to denote the eras demarcated by the birth of Christ.
Contrary to the reader’s belief, the use of AD in lieu of CE to denote the Christian era is nothing so new as “New Age.”
The term “New Age” refers to a movement of the 1970s that was characterized by alternative approaches to traditional Western culture. Environmentalism and an interest in spirituality and mysticism as opposed to organized religion are especially associated with the New Age phenomenon.
The designation CE as an abbreviation for “Christian era” predates the New Age movement by about 300 years. According to The World Heritage Encyclopedia, “The expression “Common Era” can be found as early as 1708 in English.”
Still earlier than that, another chronological term used by Christians was vulgaris aerae, “the common era.” (The adjective vulgar derives from the Latin noun vulgus, “the common people.”) This designation occurs in English as both “vulgar aera” and “vulgar era” and is abbreviated V.Ae. or V.E.
However, AD/BC have been with us for a very long time, and the reader is not alone in feeling a strong repugnance toward the growing practice of replacing it with CE/BCE.
At least one Christian governing body urges adherents to resist the CE/BCE notation, seeing it as a result of “secularization, anti-supernaturalism, religious pluralism, and political correctness.” On the other hand, many Christians support the change, in deference to non-Christian cultures that also employ the chronology.
The abbreviations CE and BCE may be interpreted as any of the following phrases:
Christian era, before Christian era
common era, before common era
current era, before current era
I started using CE/BCE in my posts for Daily Writing Tips because we have an international audience and because I’ve become aware that more and more publishers are adopting these designations. For example, five books pulled from my shelves at random reflect the changing convention:
AD/BC: Christianizing the Roman Empire, Yale University Press, 1984.
AD/BC: A History of Private Life, Volume I, Harvard University Press, 1987.
CE/BCE: The Encyclopedia of World History, Houghton-Mifflin, 2001.
CE/BCE: Life After Death, Doubleday, 2004.
CE/BCE: The Real Messiah, Watkins Publishing (London), 2009.
For my part, if the World were to organize a vote on the matter, I’d vote to keep BC/AD—if only for the fact that it’s easier to tell which is which. When I read a book that uses the BCE/CE abbreviations, I have to slow down when I come to a date because the letters CE are in both designations.
Any culture designing a chronology will choose a culturally significant event to mark “Year One.”
Before the AD designation became common, Christians made use of the Hebrew Anno Mundi chronology, which began with the estimated date of Creation. Some Christian writers reckoned time from the birth of Abraham. “Year One” for the Islamic calendar is the year Mohammad led his followers from Mecca to Medina—622 CE on the Gregorian calendar.
Whether we call the first year of our current era AD 1 or 1 CE, the fact remains that the reckoning is based on ancient Christian belief about the year in which Jesus was born. Modern scholars calculate that the historical Jesus was actually born four to seven years earlier than 1 CE.
I think it’s very likely that in another fifty years or so, a new world reckoning will supersede the current one for international use. A new chronology will separate the “before and after” eras with a new “Year One” based on some event lacking religious connotations.
The Chicago Manual of Style recommends writing CE and BCE without periods.
Writers making the switch from BC/AD to BCE/CE need to be aware of a difference in where the abbreviations should be placed in relation to the date. With BC/AD, the tradition is to put BC after the date and AD before the date:
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
Joan of Arc was executed in AD 1431.
With the BCE/CE designations, both follow the date:
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.
Joan of Arc was executed in 1431 CE.
Writers not governed by a publication’s style guide are free to use BC/AD. However, anyone who reads much history may as well get used to seeing BCE/CE.
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