Date and Era Nomenclature
We use, and recommend generally, a more culturally neutral way of designating years BC ("Before Christ"). This has been seen as desirable for some decades now, but the alternatives which have so far been proposed leave something to be desired.Previous Solutions
The alternative "BCE," which is meant to abbreviate the phrase "Before the Common Era," only works in English (it is not available to our colleagues in France or Germany), and even in English, it is often construed as "Before the Christian Era," thus defeating its original purpose. And any abbreviations are cumbersome when we have to deal with hyphenated dates which cross the base year, such as
40 BC - AD 37
Joseph Needham used a minus sign for years and centuries BC, leaving the plain numbers to represent years and centuries AD. but though that eliminates abbreviations, it gives in the above example
-40 - 37
and for a span within BC from -40 to -37, presumably we would have to write
-40 - -37
A practical convention should not give rise to such monstrosities.
The minus sign as a convention for "BC" also conflicts with the astronomical convention, in which, inevitably but also regrettably, astronomers recognize a Year Zero between 1 and -1. This leads to "astronomical years" being one lower than the corresponding "historical years." Those who have wrestled with, or been tricked by, this difference in the translations of Legge (who on the advice of the Astronomer Royal used "astronomical years") will not need to be told that this solution is full of problems for the expert as well as the novice reader.Our Solution
We recommend instead a prefixed zero for years and centuries BC. This convention avoide all abbreviations, and allows the above spans to be written as
respectively. This is much cleaner on the page, and it eliminates any possible ambiguity. It is also compatible with a prefixed c for "circa," as in "040-c037." A postfixed c for "century" (as in "03c") is a natural extension of these suggestions. None of them, as far as we have found in decades of handling complex date conjectures, causes the slightest problem in practice.
29 May 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page