Posthumous and Posthumously

By Maeve Maddox

Researching another topic altogether, I came across this startling use of the word posthumously:

Nicholas Schmidle, whose narrative account of the death of Osama bin was completed without ever interviewing any members of SEAL Team 6, posthumously wrote an article entitled “In the Crosshairs’’ in The New Yorker.

Posthumously means “after death.” An article may be published posthumously, but writing one posthumously would be quite a feat.

The adjective posthumous is applied to an action or reputation occurring, arising, or continuing after death. For example, John Kennedy Toole acquired a posthumous reputation for his novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which wasn’t published until eleven years after his death. Posthumously, he won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Or perhaps the passive would be better here: He was awarded the prize posthumously.

The word comes from the classical Latin adjective postumus that was used to describe a child born after the father’s death. The h in the English word may be the result of folk etymology by association with the word humus (earth), or by someone’s learned desire to associate it with the Latin verb humare, “to bury.”

Here are examples of posthumous and posthumously used correctly on the Web:

Murdered NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were posthumously promoted to the rank of detective.

The posthumous birth of a child has been a common occurrence throughout human history, but now “posthumous conception” has become possible. The technology that permits parents to bank sperm and eggs for later use has created legal problems no one could have anticipated a few decades ago.

I did find this quotation in which the word posthumously is used in an unexpected way:

Novelist Nadine Gordimer told writer Christopher Hitchens that “A serious person should try to write posthumously.” Hitchens interpreted her unusual use of the word to mean to write as if the “usual constraints of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.”

Bottom line: Ordinarily, people who are still alive can’t do anything posthumously.

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4 Responses to “Posthumous and Posthumously”

  • John

    Very clear and well-written. Thank you Maeve.

  • venqax

    Very good, and explains the much more specific term “born posthumously” which you see with otherwise disturbing frequency in biographies. E.g., “Bill Clinton was born posthumously in Hope, Arkanasas in 1946.” The original meaning, which is extant but obviously used much less frequently, is what we assume was intended.

  • Hiten Vyas

    Hi Maeve,
    This is a fascinating article. Thank you for describing these two words and how to use them correctly.

  • Mike

    More and more of these daily articles are a stretch. How many absurd errors online are going to be taken seriously and expounded upon? I understand that a new topic each and every day may be difficult to fashion. How about taking weekends off? There’s plenty archived here that could be featured a second time, too. Or readers could simply browse by themselves. No need to approve this and post it on site if you don’t want to. I had to let you know how I feel, and I am betting a lot of other people feel similarly. I do not have much interest in stumbled-upon mistakes from online sources. Sure, it’s fodder for another million years of daily posts. There’s plenty to go around. Quality of quantity, OK? Consider it. Weekends off. Better articles during the week. We all benefit.

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