Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's in a necronym?

I’ve read several biographies of the Duke of Wellington that begin by listing certain superficial commonalities he shared with his great adversary, Napoleon. Both were born in 1769. Both were the product of island dependencies of the nations they’re most associated with--Napoleon of course was Corsican, while Wellington was Anglo-Irish. I’ve never seen a biography that mentioned the fact both men were christened with sibling necronyms, however.

In other words, both were given the same name as a dead brother.

As a woman of the 21st century, I can’t imagine doing such a thing. If, God forbid, anything happened to Miss Fraser, it would feel like the height of cruelty to both daughters to give another baby the same name--as if my second daughter wasn’t her own unique person but a replacement for her lost sister, and as if my first child could ever be replaced.

Obviously the Earl and Countess of Mornington and Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte didn’t feel the same way when they were naming their new sons back in the summer of 1769. I don’t think that’s because the higher infant mortality of the 18th century had inured them to grief at the loss of the first Arthur and Napoleone. Parents of the era before vaccinations and antibiotics were undoubtedly less shocked to lose a child than we would be today, but letters and journals of the era show the deep sorrow of fathers and mothers at the loss of babies and young children. Instead I think 18th century parents thought of names differently than we do today.

When Mr. Fraser and I named our daughter, we thought primarily of her future and our aspirations for her to be a happy, successful individual. We picked a name we believed sounded both beautiful and dignified. We tested its dignity by plugging it into the presidential oath of office and imagining how it would sound in the sentence, “And the Nobel Prize for medicine goes to...” (Or to put it another way, to me a good girl’s name is one that would sound better on a POTUS than on the pole.) We kept the nod to tradition and family heritage in her middle name, which is a feminine form of her paternal grandfather’s name.

But in the past, names were more about family connections than expressing your dreams for your unique Special Snowflake of a baby. Wellington was named for his maternal grandfather. Knowing that, it makes much more sense that his parents reused the name. If you name your second son Arthur to show him, his grandfather, and all the world that the connection matters to you and you want the name to live on in the family, of course if that boy dies, you’ll give the name to the next son born, hoping he’ll be more fortunate and live to pass the name on to sons and grandsons of his own, keeping the great chain of connections and heritage alive.


  1. I wonder what the rough age limit is for the dying child where you can still do that. "Arthur loved pickles when he was three but hated them by the next year--the dead one, I mean, not this Arthur" could get so AWKWARD.

  2. Indeed. I left that part out because the post was already getting long, but the first Napoleon died as a baby, while the first Arthur was a little older--enough to have had toys and pocket money which he left to his older brother Richard. That's the only reason I know of his existence, in fact. I've got a biography of Richard Wellesley that mentions him. Going by how he'd fit into family birthdates, he was probably born in 1761 or 1762, and had to have died before Wellington was born in 1769.