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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, feed language after midnight.
This month, the Radiotopia collective welcomes a new member: Ear Hustle, stories from inside prison, told and produced by those living it at San Quentin State Prison - Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods are both serving sentences there and working on audio and video projects in the San Quentin Media Lab, and they’re collaborating on Ear Hustle with Nigel Poor; she’s a San Francisco-based artist and educator. You can hear a taster of their show at the end of this episode; you can subscribe to it now on your podcatcher of choice, and the first full episode will land on 14 June. We’re very proud to have Ear Hustle on board, and to welcome it into the fold, each of us Radiotopians are releasing an episode on the theme of Doing Time. This is mine.
To warm up, here’s some word history, sponsored by Blue Apron: the origin of the word ‘calendar’. It’s from the Latin word ‘kalends/calends’, the name for the first day of the month, the day debts were due; a calendarium was an account book or list, so the word also lent itself later to the idea of keeping track of the year.
Calends derived from the verb ‘calare’, to call out or announce, because priests would declare the presence of the new moon that day, marking the start of a new month. So calends was new moon day; idus - the ides - was the full moon, in the middle of the month, the 15th or 13th day, depending on the length of the month, which also dictated the timing of nones, which fell either five or seven days between calends and idus. Romans didn’t number the days of the month in sequence as we do now. Instead, they’d count down from calends to nones, and then from nones to idus, and then from idus to calends. So if you wanted to refer to the fourth day of a month where nones was the seventh day, you’d say, 'ante diem tertium nonas', 'the third day before the nones', or if it was the last day of the month, you’d say, 'Pridie calendas', 'the day before calends'.
I barely know what day it is today, let alone how many days it is from another day that may be at different points if the month is long or not. “Sorry I missed your birthday, mum, I didn’t realise the idus was on the 13th day this month.” I have it easy with the sequential numbers in today’s calendars...
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On with the show.
There’s something I trip over regularly in the Allusionist.
Not the fruit. My floor is not strewn with dates. Also not the Tinder kind of dates, c'mon: the identification of a point in time kind of dates.
It comes up often in this show: “A bit of ancient Greek happened in 350 BC! A word came into English via French in 700 AD!”
That’s 350 Before Christ, 700 Anno Domini, the year of the lord (the lord also being Christ, in case you were expecting it to be the New Zealand singer Lorde).
Firstly: why is 'Before Christ' in English and 'Anno Domini' Latin? I get that if Before Christ were translated into Latin, Ante Dominum would also be AD, so not helpful. And I can see how Ante Christ might be open to misinterpretation.
But that’s not the reason why I find myself questioning whether I should be saying BC and AD. The thing that makes me pause: Christ… he’s not my guy. I’m not religious at all. So every time I label a year BC or AD, I think, “Am I really allowed to, having not opted into the religion whose figurehead’s putative birthdate is the fulcrum for this whole system?”
And I know some of you will be screaming at me, “Helen! Just substitute BC and AD with BCE and ACE, Before Common Era and After Common Era! If it’s good enough for the United Nations, it’s good enough for you!”
Yeah, and Common Era terminology has been around for at least three hundred years, during much of which it was used fairly synonymously with Christian Era and Vulgar Era - 'vulgar' in the sense of common, not ‘lewd’. You’ll sometimes see VE instead of AD in texts.
But here’s my issue with BCE and ACE: they are still referring to the same Christ-based dating practices. They might not be using Christy language, but the language it is using aligns commonality with Christianity.
“Political correctness gone mad! Can’t even say Christ any more?”
Not what I mean! I’m not trying to erase the contributions of Jesus Christ to the culture in which I live. I merely want to know how he came to be so integral to our system of dating.
And I’m pointing the finger at a man called Dionysus Exiguus. I’m not angry, I just want to understand.
Dionysus Exiguus was a monk in Rome. Yes, a monk named after the Greek god of orgiastic revelry - nominative determinism doesn’t always work. And Dionysus Exiguus is the person credited with inventing Anno Domini.
Why did he do it? As a sort of protest.
Dionysus Exiguus was performing a very important task, known as 'computus' - yes, same root as computer, but it was compiling the Easter Tables, calculating the dates Easter should fall, so that Christians weren’t observing it on different days to each other. At the time, years were numbered as 'anno Diocletiani', year of Diocletian, the Roman Emperor who began his rule in 284AD or, as it was termed when Dionysus Exiguus was at work, 1 anno Diocletiani.
In 18 anno Diocletiani, aka 302 anno domini, the Emperor had ordered the persecution of Christians: their legal rights were rescinded, they were forbidden to congregate to worship, their scriptures and places of worship were destroyed, their clergy tortured and killed. Name the dates of Easter, the most important day in the Christian calendar, in commemoration of the man who ordered that? Not on Dionysus Exiguus’s watch! No way. He listed 95 years’ worth of forthcoming Easters and labelled them as falling in anni Domini nostri Jesu Christi (Years of our Lord Jesus Christ). And how to number them, if he didn’t want the start of Diocletian’s rule to be the mathematical reference point? He decided that the current year, 240 anno Diocletiani, was 525 anno domini - 525 years after the birth of Jesus.
The methods by which Dionysus calculated this are somewhat unknown. Those who have studied lunar cycles and parallel events suggest that Jesus was born around three or four years before AD kicked in. But, Dionysus was pretty close; and it’s thought that his choice was also intended to mollify people who had interpreted the scriptures to predict the second coming, and the end of the world, would happen 500 years after Jesus’s birth. Establish the year as 525, 25 years after Armageddon was supposed to have happened - a masterstroke! Dionysus shut down Doomsday and shunned Emperor Diocletian in one smooth manoeuvre.
He didn’t shut down the squabbling over when Easter should fall - that continued for more than a thousand years, different calculations, different systems, different attempts to align the solar and lunar calendars. Time, timekeeping, dates: they may seem absolute now, but they were arrived at by disagreement, compromise, collaboration, trying to tidy up pre-existing systems... Maybe you think it’s pretty scrappy that our current twelve months vary in length from 28-31 days, and there has to be a leap day every four years to take care of the leftovers. But at least it’s less confusing than having a whole leap month, which used to be the case in the Roman calendar before Julius Caesar overhauled it: this leap month, or intercalary month, was named Mercedonius. At the time, the Roman year was 12 months long amounting to 355 days, so to keep roughly in sync with the Earth’s 365¼-day-long annual cycle around the Sun, to bring the year up to 377 or 378 days, Mercedonius was shoved in between February and March every two years. Supposedly.
What actually happened is Mercedonius was administered by a pontifex, a high-ranking priest with big political clout. And if the pontifex had friends who were magistrates (whose terms corresponded with the calendar year), they might throw in a Mercedonius so their friends were in office for longer; or if they wanted an enemy to serve less time in office, they might not bother having the extra month that year. Bribes might also determine whether or not there was an intercalary month. With the result that, in the five years before Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46BC, there had been zero leap months. 46BC had to make up for the shortfall - and thus ended up being 445 days long. It was known as ‘the year of confusion’. I’ve lived through some of those.
Then, clean slate: the Julian calendar commenced on 1 January 45BC, with no more bribe-optional leap months, just a 365-day long year with a leap day every four years at the end of february. This would be the last full calendar year of Julius Caesar’s life; in 44BC, on the Ides of March, he was assassinated.
His successor, the emperor Augustus, made some tweaks to the Julian calendar, and in honour of Julius Caesar renamed a month Iulius - July (and August after himself). It's his version of the Julian calendar that became used for next 1600 years, until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII decided to fix some of the problems with it - there had been slightly too many leap years, and Easter still wasn’t being celebrated on the same day by all of Christianity.
His Gregorian calendar was instituted in other Catholic countries, and over the following four centuries it came to be used by most of the rest of the world, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, as Christianity spread itself into different countries, taking its dating systems with it. The British Empire continued the job, supplanting the practices of the countries it colonised. And: globalisation was a big factor. Trade requires some mutually accepted systems: the development of writing was one such - listen to episode 13 for more on that - and the Gregorian calendar was another. Modes of travel becoming quicker and longer-range travel also result in the calibration of local systems. For example, when Britain established a railway network, suddenly it was a problem that towns all set their clocks to slightly different times. So in 1840, the Great Western Railway coordinated all of its timetables to London time, and eventually, after quite a few years, there was a standard time across Britain, which then became the reference point for maritime charts and thence led to a worldwide standard of time.
This is really just scratching the surface of how the system of measuring and describing time arrived at its current form, over thousands of years, with plenty squabbling, tussles and mess. Changes to calendar and date systems are not often smooth, unsurprising when politics is so closely involved.
In 1793, four years after the French Revolution began, nine days after the execution of Marie Antoinette, France had a new calendar, without references to religion or royalty - instead of AD, it was named the era of liberty, and Year 1 was 1792, the start of the Republic. But, on 1st January 1806, France went back to the Gregorian calendar: the republic was over, Napoleon was Emperor, he had reinstituted Catholicism, and thought the Gregorian calendar might smooth things over with the Pope.
But in Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge imposed year zero, to imply the obliteration of all but their regime, with a death toll of at least two million in the following four years.
Dionysus Exiguus’s revolt took place on the page of the Easter Tables he was drawing up. It wasn’t so bloody, and it took a lot longer - it was hundreds of years before anno domini caught on widely. Standards don’t just happen. And they are built on references that are not universal ones, because what universal references are there?
Year zero in the Buddhist calendar is the year of Buddha’s death. The years of the Islamic calendar are numbered from the year of Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina. In Scientology, AD stands for After Dianetics, and begins in 1950 with the publication of L Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health - years before that are BD, Before Dianetics. And for more than 1000 years in Assyria, until around 612BC, the official method was eponym dating, rather than being numbered, each year was named after an official. You’ve really got to know the context with a system like that.
But with AD and BC, I barely need to know any context at all. To use the terms, I don’t even need to know that they refer to Jesus Christ; I don’t even need to know who he is, or that a monk in Rome in the sixth century decided that years would be measured from his birth, or about any of the religious or political or commercial influences that went into the formulation of the current calendar. I live in a culture heavily informed by Christianity, and it’s knitted into far more of my vocabulary than I realise. Definitely more than I think I can get rid of. Not just that religion, either - I don’t worship the pagan Old English goddess Frigg and the ancient Roman god Saturn, after whom Friday and Saturday are named.
So, I probably shouldn’t single out BC and AD for special attention. The primary job of language is to communicate information to others, and BC and AD do do that. Will they always be the standard? Probably not - there are always ideas to streamline the calendar and make it more rational or based on something else. Change often doesn’t happen fast, but it does happen.
Cesare Emiliani was a groundbreaking paleo-oceanographer and paleoclimatologist from Italy. And in 1993, he suggested a new point to count years from: the start of the Holocene epoch, roughly 10,000 years before 1BC. So under Cesare Emiliani’s Holocene Era or Human Era system, this current year, known to me as 2017, would be 12017. The first moon landing happened in 11969. Stonehenge was constructed 6900. And around 1 HE, humans began agriculture and building settlements. The Human Era could work. But if the other calendars are anything to go by, it could take a few hundred years more to catch on.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick. He and I are cooking up something very special for the next episode. You’ll be able to hear it at theallusionist.org and all the usual channels.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of podcasts made possible by the Knight Foundation and you excellent listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
byblow, noun, dated: a man’s illegitimate child.
Try using it in an email today, or maybe don’t.
In Spring 2016, Radiotopia launched Podquest: we invited open submissions for ideas for shows to become part of our collective, and we ended up receiving 1537 from 53 countries. It was absolutely thrilling. Several PRX staff, some Radiotopia producers, including me, and 99 Radiotopia donors, spent weeks listening to the submissions and arguing over them and whittling them down, to our top 50, top 10, four finalists, and at last, one: Ear Hustle. It was clear that this show would be something special and people really wanted to hear more of it. Over the past year, Antwan, Earlonne and Nigel have been working hard with Radiotopia exec producer Julie Shapiro to get Ear Hustle ready for you, and we’re absolutely delighted that it is finally here. Visit earhustlesq.com to find out more about the show; subscribe now; the first episode will be available on 14 June, and here’s a preview.
[I don't have a transcript for the Ear Hustle preview; I'm terribly sorry.]