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Surname of 'Posthumus'

asked 2015-03-19 14:21:45 -0400

anonymous user


Hi there,

My last name of 'Posthumus' hails from the dutch province of Friesland.

In my little bit of digging, I found that there are a small number of 'Posthumus' surnames found in part of Wales, and some of these still have equally Latin sounding first names, but being as this is not at all true of their Friesian counterparts, I doubt there is a real connection to be discovered there.

The Welsh find was interestingly consistent with the character of Posthumus in Shakespeare's ''Cymbeline,'' which also apparently takes place in that part of the British Isles, but I digress.

Far and away the most surnames of ''Posthumus'' are found in families of Friesian origin. It seems to be the only Friesian last name that is not linguistically Friesian. I am aware that it is Latin (or 'dog Latin' as I have seen it described - likely because of the omission of the second 'o' ), meaning ''after death'' and is used in English context today when talking about a person's ''posthumous'' award, recognition, or influence. I also am aware that as a surname it originally indicated the person named was born after the death of his/her father.

What I am curious to know is whether it is a fluke from a well educated Friesian who added a Latin descriptor to his own or someone else's name, and by sheer chance it had sticking power enough to become a surname in his lineage even though such a surname is not to be found anywhere even in the vast Latin world- or whether there is a better reason. Perhaps in Spain, Portugal, Italy, or South America such a name would have been altered to something more resembling modern forms of Spanish, Portuguese or Italian, while in Friesland it was considered a special rather than archaic name-?

I know that surnames in Friesland were virtually non-existent before they became necessary for French taxes under Napolianic rule in 1810, but I have found one person online who sites an ancestor with the name Posthumus, who married a woman in 1740 with the last name of Harkes. This counters the story I heard that someone was being funny by calling themselves ''Posthumus'' for the Napolianic tax collectors, possibly referring to some Lord during the time of Spanish rule 300 odd years earlier.

Can someone shed any more light on this, correct, clarify, or add points of interest?

Michael Posthumus

(Transferred from old LINGUIST List Ask-a-Linguist site)

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answered 2015-03-19 14:23:48 -0400

anonymous gravatar image

The reason why someone might have called the spelling "Posthumus" dog-Latin is not because the o of -ous is lacking; it was never there, -ous is a purely English spelling which never occurred in Latin. It is because of the H. The Latin word was originally, and always commonly, written "postumus", deriving from "post", 'after', and it originally meant simply "something later, an afterthought"; but then it additionally acquired the specialized meaning "born after the father's death", and when it had that it meaning the -umus part was mistakenly equated with "humus", 'earth', i.e. it was supposed to mean "after burial". But this mistaken spelling was used already by Romans, it wasn't a mistake of later Europeans; and in English "posthumous" only means 'after burial' -- this may have been a Roman misunderstanding but in English it is the sole meaning.

Postumus was a Roman surname -- Cicero had a friend with that name. I know nothing about the history of Friesian surnames in particular but I think it was fairly common in various parts of mediaeval and modern Europe (though not England) for Classical names to have been taken over as surnames or given names.

Hope this helps,

Geoffrey Sampson

Michael, here's what my colleague (from the Germanic Languages Department at Calvin College) passed along to me:


One of the on-line authorities for Dutch surnames is the Meertins Instituut. Here's the link to the page on Poshumus:

The writer has the history right about Napoleon and Dutch surnames. He's also correct that Posthumus is most frequently found in Friesland (and elsewhere in the North, though to lesser extent). He's also correct that the Latin origin indicates a child born after the father of that child had passed away. As to the cleverness of whatever Frisians able to apply a Latinized surname, I've seen no such documentation.

It is also possible that some Posthumus names are/were a bastardized Latinization of Postma--also common in Friesland, but derived from the occupation of a Postman or Postal carrier.

Hope this helps.

Best, Herm

HERMAN DE VRIES, Ph.D. Professor of Germanic Languages Meijer Chair in Dutch Language and Culture

Calvin College | Department of Germanic & Asian Languages 1845 Knollcrest Circle SE Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546

616.526.6804 | [email protected] [email protected] |

James Vandenbosch

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Asked: 2015-03-19 14:21:45 -0400

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Last updated: Mar 19 '15