If AM stands for ante meridiem, PM stands for post meridiem, and AD stands for anno Domini, why is BC English rather than Latin? It seems curious to me that the inventor of our present year-numbering system, Dionysius Exiguus, living in Rome in the sixth century AD, would coin the term "before Christ" in English. Does BC also mean something in Latin, or did it replace a less-known Latin term?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
The mystery isn’t BC, it’s why we continue to use the archaic abbreviation AD. Speakers of many European languages have long since dropped the Latin in favor of the vernacular. The following examples were cheerfully contributed by the gang on the Internet: French, avJC, avant (before) Jesus Christ; apJC, apres (after) Jesus Christ. German, vChr, vChrG, vor (before) Christi Geburt (birth), nChr, nChrG, nach (after) Christi Geburt. Italian, aC, avanti (before) Cristo; dC, dopo (after) Cristo. Finnish, eKr, ennen Kristuksen syntymaa, before the birth of Christ; jKr, jalkeen Kristuksen syntyman, after the birth of Christ. Swedish, fKr, fore (before) Kristus; eKr, efter (after) Kristus. AD is used in religious texts. Dutch, vC, vChr, voor (before) Christus; AD, anno Domini. OK, so the Dutch are as retro as we are.
While Dionysius Exiguus devised our present year numbering system in the sixth century AD, he didn’t invent the term anno Domini, which first appeared in the 12th century. AD subsequently came into wide but not universal use. One correspondent notes that up to the 18th century French official documents were often dated “en l’an de grace 0000,” in the year of grace [whatever]. A similar term is found in old English texts.
There’s no obvious reason why we cling to AD and some wish we wouldn’t. Jewish scholars often use the abbreviations BCE, before the common era, and CE, common era, and some archaeologists have begun doing so as well, occasionally translating CE as “Christian era.” Whether this is done out of a desire to use a more secular term or punctiliousness over the fact that Christ wasn’t actually born in 1 AD I dunno, but the practice has spread to other languages. Italians sometimes use “era volgare,” common era, and in Finnish one occasionally sees the abbreviations “eaa” and “jaa,” which stand for before and after the (beginning of the) common era.
Doesn’t matter to me as long as they don’t mess with the year numbering, as some have been tempted to do. Amos Shapir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem informs me that while common practice in Israel today is to use standard numbering with the Hebrew initials for “before the [Christian] count,” “I have seen some old history books which used the term `before the destruction of the second Temple.’ Since this happened in 70 AD, prehistoric dates in this scale are close to those used by the Gentiles. [But] I guess the confusion created was enough to convince even religious Jewish scholars to abandon this method.” Thank Yahweh.
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