Monday, 26 September 2011

AD/CE: Does it matter how we label a date?

It isn't quite a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation, and to describe it as "dumbing down" is to misuse (dumb down, in fact) a useful phrase. Nevertheless, the decision of part of the BBC (or at any rate, one part of that labyrinthine organisation) to embrace the politically-correct, faith-neutral dating terminology CE/BCE does advance an insidious tendency that should, where possible, be resisted.

Boris Johnson makes the best point:


You should not underestimate the influence of this verdict. What the BBC decides, all kinds of other publishers and broadcasters will decide to follow. Schools will snap into line, and if people protest they will be told that they are following best practice – it's what the BBC does, after all.

Indeed. It was for example the BBC's decision to drop the historic English name for the capital of China, Peking, that led to its almost universal replacement, for no good reason, by Beijing. More recently, the BBC has helped to eradicate Bombay from the English language in favour of Mumbai, again despite long and uncontroversial historical precedent - though in that case there was at least a formal decision by the Indian government that might be said to justify it. If the BBC did consistently adopt BCE/CE instead of the traditional forms BC/AD, the change would probably prove decisive. Who now remembers that "Celsius" used to be called "Centigrade"?

In fact, the BBC isn't exactly ahead of the curve here. Many school textbooks already use BCE/CE, as do many academic and an increasing number of non-academic history books. The issue has become increasingly self-conscious and fraught: it's now common to find a note at the start of a book justifying the author's choice of dating terminology. Indeed, the BBC is sending out mixed messages, on the one hand stressing that the decision over which style to use is left to individual programme makers, on the other putting out a statement that "as the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians."

The Beeb's confusion mirrors the current state of affairs nationally - and indeed throughout the English-speaking world. BC/AD is still probably normative, if only just. It's overwhelmingly the style used in popular speech (and thus heard most often on the broadcast media, including on the BBC). BCE/CE still sounds, to most ears, either puzzling or affected. To use the newer terms still suggests the self-conscious making of a point. But that is slowly but surely changing. As CE gains ground in universities, in schools, in print and finally in speech - at first disproportionately among younger people and those in positions of influence and power - it will reach a tipping point, after which it will seem entirely natural. Those who continue to use AD and BC will come to be seen as old-fashioned, fogeyish, religious conservatives. They will be the ones who sound as though they are making a point.

Melanie Phillips might today sound paranoid when she claims that the spread of the Common Era is "part of the wider desire to obliterate Christianity in British culture." But she is not paranoid to detect increasing momentum behind the new terminology, or to suspect that, unresisted, it will in time take over. Recent research has found that it only requires ten percent of a population to hold an unshakable belief - where the other ninety percent are not firmly committed - for that belief to spread through the population. Whether or not there are good philosophical or political grounds for replacing "Before Christ" with the more cumbersome "Before the Common Era", the belief that some such change was necessary took hold in sections of academia around thirty years ago and has been progressively spreading ever since. I see no reason for thinking that many people now convinced of the superiority of CE/BCE over AD/BC will ever change their minds.

I don't like the new terms. I find them inharmonious and cumbersome (BCE especially) and the argument that taking an initial standing for "Christ" out of the terminology renders it more neutral and less "offensive" is fairly risible. Especially since the initials can always be glossed as "Christian Era" and "Before the Christian Era" respectively, and any explanation of what the terms mean must necessarily involve mentioning Jesus. I accept that it is illogical to have one term taken from Latin (Anno Domini) and the other from English; AC would make more sense; but such is the legacy of history and as a linguistic conservative I revel in such anomalies as I revel in the absurdities of English spelling.

Above all, I never enjoy watching the triumph of smug people who believe themselves to be the embodiment of liberalism and progressive modernity.

So I find myself on the barricades alongside the Mayor of London, Melanie Phillips and James Delingpole in a no-doubt doomed defence of our traditional chronological initials. The loss of BC and AD won't change the world; nor will their supercession by BCE and CE end the dominion of dead white European males over Western culture or even mark more than a staging post in the decline of Christianity. But it will, in a small way, make our culture duller, more bureaucratic and more utilitarian.

As for the BBC, though, I wonder why they're taking so long to roll out the change. One expects more from a bastion of political correctness.