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a method of numbering years which refers to the period of time that began after the birth of Jesus Christ
'Guidance from the broadcaster's ethics specialists suggested that the modern phrases common era and before common era should be considered as potential replacements for Anno Domini and Before Christ. The proposal caused consternation among Christian traditionalists and some of the corporation's most famous names, who promised to ignore the idea.'The Telegraph 26th September 2011
If you saw a date reference followed by the letters BC, you'd be likely to know that whatever was being described happened a jolly long time ago. But if you saw one preceded or followed by the letters CE, would you be clear about its position in the sequence of time? For the uninitiated, CE is an abbreviation of the expression Common Era, and in 2011, it's proving rather controversial.
CE and BCE … were conceived as … expressions that are not specifically anchored in Christianity and are therefore sensitive to all and any of the world's religions and belief systems
Common Era is basically an alternative way of expressing the concept denoted by the phrase Anno Domini, commonly AD for short. In chronology, AD is used after a date to pinpoint it as after the time when it is traditionally believed that Jesus Christ was born (Anno Domini is a Latin expression meaning 'in the year of the Lord'). Its counterpart is of course BC, an abbreviation for before Christ used to show reference to a time before the approximate birth of Jesus Christ. Correspondingly therefore, Common Era has a respective counterpart Before Common Era, or BCE for short, which can be used as an alternative to BC.
Numerically, both systems are equivalent, so 2011 CE is exactly the same as 2011 AD. Why then do we need CE and BCE when there are already established terms to represent these concepts? The straightforward answer is that they were conceived as 'neutral' chronological terms, expressions that are not specifically anchored in Christianity and are therefore sensitive to all and any of the world's religions and belief systems. In contemporary usage the idea has been embraced in some, mainly educational, contexts, so that for instance CE/BCE pop up in school textbooks and have been adopted by many universities on particular courses, including the Open University, the UK's largest. Interestingly, this Ngram chart of word usage over two hundred years supports the suggestion that the expression Common Era became much more established towards the end of the 20th century.
However the idea of Common Era as a religiously neutral term seems to come unstuck at its very conception because, although it's supposed to be a secular piece of terminology, any attempt to define it uses Christianity as a reference point. Ironically, one of its main lexical variants, also abbreviated to CE, is Christian Era. The alternative Current Era is also sometimes used.
The expressions Common Era and Before Common Era hit the spotlight in September 2011, when the BBC, as part of its commitment to impartiality, reportedly advised the use of them as a way to avoid offending and alienating non-Christians. The measure sparked a backlash of criticism however, not just from Christian commentators, but also from some of the BBC's leading presenters and even the UK government, who argued that AD and BC were the most widely recognized and understood terms and it therefore made no sense to stop using them.
Though it may look like a trendy new creation, the origins of the expression Common Era date as far back as the early 1600s. In 1635, derived from the Latin form vulgaris aerae, the expression Vulgar Era emerged, with vulgar in its original meaning of 'of the common people'. By the early 17th century this expression had begun to take the variant form Common Era, which was introduced more widely by Jewish academics in the mid-eighteenth century.
A much more recent coinage with the same underlying principles of religious neutrality is the term Winterval, suggested as a politically-correct alternative to Christmas, but predictably proving equally controversial.
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This article was first published on 14th November 2011.