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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? --Elton Raynor, Montreal

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 6th 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 for clinging 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," he's 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.


One got by you. Jesus was not born in "either 4 BC or 6 BC" as your reader stated [April 8] but 4 BC, the year of Herod's death, or 6 AD, the date of the Roman census. We have data establishing censuses in Roman Egypt at 12-year intervals, and an attempt has been made to apply this to Palestine, providing a hypothetical census in 6 BC. But this involves screwing with Luke's Greek, "This was the first census . . ." Dionysius Exiguus (Denny the Dwarf), who set the 1 AD date, seems to have split the difference. If we party from 1997 to 2006 we're bound to hit it. --Tim Reynolds, Los Angeles

Most sensible suggestion I've heard yet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.


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