The Baby Name Posthumus

gravesIn the middle of the 16th century, English babies whose fathers had died before they were born started getting names like “Postumus,” “Posthumous” and “Posthuma.”

The idea of styling a child by this name, thus connected its birth with the father’s antecedent death, seems to have touched a sympathetic chord, and the practice began to widely prevail.

Here are the earliest examples I’ve found:

  • In 1566, Thomas Posthumus Hoby was born.
  • On 10 February 1572, Posthumus, son of Robert Pownoll, was christened at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England.
  • On 9 April 1581, Posthumus, daughter of John Strowde, was christened in Eastwell, Kent, England.
  • On 1 January 1583, Posthumus, son of Rawlf Coulton, was christened in York, England.
  • On 5 March 1597, Posthuma, daughter of John Grubbs, was christened in Little Plumstead, Norfolk, England.

Shakespeare even featured a character named Posthumus Leonatus in his Cymbeline (circa 1611).

For centuries, names like these were used as firsts and middles, for both boys and girls, in England and elsewhere (U.S. included).

The practice started winding down in the late 1800s; I’ve only found handful of babies named Posthumus born post-1900.

Source: Bardsley, Charles Wareing Endell. Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. London: Chatto & Windus, 1897.

UPDATE, 11/2013:

Looks like the original version of the word, Postumus, was used as a given name in ancient times as well. During the years that ancient Rome was a Republic, “the praenomen was a real personal name” (not so later on) and some of the praenomina used during this period reflected birth circumstances. One example is Postumus, “a child born after his father’s death.” Another is Vopiscus, “the sole survivor of twins.”

Source: Wilson, Stephen. The Means Of Naming: A Social History. London: UCL Press, 1998.


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