I heard a historian on the radio the other day cite a year and add ‘Common Era’ at the end. It irritated me. The BCE/CE nomenclature has been in common use for a couple of decades now, but it still irritates me. Of course, they mean BC and AD. We know they mean BC and AD. They know we know they mean BC and AD. We know they know we know they mean BC and AD. It doesn’t matter.
What’s going on when someone in the academy or the media uses the terms BCE or CE? Like so much else in the critical social justice discourse, this use of language has little to do with conveying historical information, and everything to do with signalling a political orientation. Christianity is patriarchal, oppressive, and outmoded. And it’s offensive to other faiths to use an overtly Christian calendar.
The Common Era may be a synonym for Anno Domini, the Christian Era, but it’s very poor taste to assert that. So let’s slap another label on it, pretend to forget what it originally meant, and turn it into a non-offensive, non-denominational metric.
I looked up the phrase ‘Common Era’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, and was surprised to find earliest citation is from 1651, in a translation of a work by a French author, one J. Daillé:
The Beliefe..that our Saviour Christ lived..Thirty three Years [means]..they [sc. the Church of Rome] alwaies inscribe [on their Good Friday tapers] a number of years, which is less by Thirty three, then the common Æra of the Christians [Fr. l’ære commune des Chrestiens].
The ‘common Æra of the Christians’ then. Nothing non-denominational about that.
There are many examples of the renaming of things in our current cultural moment. Actresses have become actors, coloured people have become people of colour, the Third World has become the developing nations, and, as one example of the great wave of academia renaming, Edinburgh University has changed the name of its David Hume Tower to 40 George Square.
Some of these renamings are merely cosmetic, an attempt to replace a supposedly non-inclusive or offensive word or phrase with one that is neither (though I don’t expect ‘person of colour’ to be around for long. ‘Global majority’ seems to be the current favourite to replace it, and would at least have the virtue of laying bare the agenda.)
But often, as with the BCE/CE usage, renaming things is an attempt to release them from their traditional cultural and material moorings. Once, for example, sex has been renamed as ‘gender’, its biological essence can be masked. The terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ become malleable, categories that be can be altered and extended by surgery and synthetic hormones — or even by speech acts.
Of course, language is dynamic, and English is the most dynamic of all languages. Words and their meaning change. What seems different about the kinds of changes I’ve mentioned is that they’re being driven consciously to support a political agenda. And for the time being, there seems to be no stopping them.
[Image of Anno Domini plaque courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]