Telling Time

We recently adjusted our clocks to spring forward into daylight savings time.  This annual ritual reminded me of the cultural assumptions that underpin how we tell time.  What year is it?

In the western or Christian European tradition, it is 2019 AD. The AD is Latin for “in the year of our Lord” and is based on the birth year of Jesus. Of course, no one really knows when Jesus was born so early church leaders simply selected a year.  The centuries of human activity pre-dating the birth of Jesus were dubbed Before Christ (BC).

These designations are being replaced with the Common Era (CE) and Before the Common Era (BCE).  These terms were first used in the 17th and 18th centuries by European scholars of the Enlightenment who wanted to remove overtly religious symbolism from scientific study.  Today CE and BCE usually signify an attempt to be more culturally inclusive.

For observant Jews, we are currently living in Year 5779.  This date was calculated by rabbinic scholars who added up the ages of people in the Bible back to the time of creation.  Rabbinic scholars know the universe is older than 5700 years but establishing the age of the universe is not their goal. Their goal is measuring time from the beginning of Judaism.

Muslims base their calendar on a traumatic event in the life of Prophet Mohammed.  In the Christian year of 622 AD/CE, the Prophet Mohammed fled from persecution in Mecca and moved to Medina. This event is known as the “hijra” or emigration and every year since is designated as “after Hijra” (AH).  In the Hijri calendar, we are living in 1440 AH.

Whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim, our calendars are linear, anchored to a designated point in time.  For the Chinese, time is cyclical following a 12-year zodiac cycle. This is currently the Year of the Pig.  This calendar system is credited to the emperor Qin Shi Huang who unified China and founded the Qin dynasty in 246 BCE.  He is best known today for his magnificent terracotta army that guards his tomb.

When we tell time, we immediately signal to others our cultural affiliations and assumptions. Accepting these differences makes the world a much more intriguing and exciting place.


About Norma Shirk

My company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, helps employers (with up to 50 employees) to create human resources policies and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to help small companies grow by creating the necessary back office administrative structure while avoiding the dead weight of a bureaucracy.  To read my musings on the wacky world of human resources, see HR Compliance Jungle ( which alternates on Wednesday mornings with my new history blog, History By Norma, (available at To read my musings on a variety of topics, see my posts on Her Savvy (

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