Many parents feared the necronym was a murderous curse…


Detail of Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863

From The Believer:

Parsed from the Greek, necronym literally translates as “death name.” It usually means a name shared with a dead sibling. Until the late nineteenth century, necronyms were not uncommon among Americans and Europeans. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next child, a natural consequence of high birth rates and high infant mortality rates.

Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, had a brother named Ludwig Maria who was born in April 1769 and lived for only six days. The composer was baptized on December 17 of the following year and was likely born the day prior, given church customs in the Catholic Rhine country where he lived (no official record of his birth date exists). Marketed as a musical prodigy, Beethoven often felt it necessary to prove his age. In an 1809 letter to his friend Wegeler, he asked for his baptismal certificate: “…take note of the fact that I had a brother born before me, who was also called Ludwig, but with the additional name of ‘Maria,’ and who died. In order to determine my true age, you should, therefore, first find this Ludwig. For I know that other people, by giving out that I am older than I really am, have been responsible for this error—Unfortunately I lived for a while without knowing how old I was.”

“When your dad was a boy,” my mother told me, “and this was long ago—you have to remember he lived through the Great Depression—it wasn’t unheard of to name a child after a dead relative, especially a dead child.”

In their 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum offer one reason for the necronym’s decline: many parents feared it was a murderous curse.

Another possible curse: the name haunts the child for life.

“What’s In A Necronym?”, Jeannie Vanasco, The Believer