What is a Necronym?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A necronym is the name of someone who has died, and in many cultures, the idea of the necronym is also extended to references to the dead. The complex rituals and beliefs surrounding the idea of death and dying sometimes result in intriguing taboos about necronyms in some cultures, and such taboos sometimes frustrate or confuse travelers. While almost any name could technically be considered a necronym, given the fact that names tend to be cyclical in nature, most people use the term specifically to refer to the name of someone who has died recently.

In the United States, children may be named after their deceased grandparents as a tribute.
In the United States, children may be named after their deceased grandparents as a tribute.

In some traditions, it is common to see necronyms reused. For example, in some European nations, if a child dies young, the next child may be given his or her name, sometimes multiple times historically, when death in childhood was very common. In other cultures, the name of someone who has died recently will be given to a baby, as a way of honoring the person who is dead. More generally, necronyms may be passed down through multiple generations; in the United States, for example, children may be given the names of their grandparents, sometimes as middle names.

Necronym taboos which forbid the use of the names of the dead are also common in some regions of the world, especially in Southeast Asia and Oceania. In these cultures, people may not speak the name of a dead person for a set period of time, and they may not be allowed to reference the dead either, except through code words or complicated circumlocutions. Speaking the name of the dead may be viewed as bad luck for a wide number of reasons in these cultures.

Speaking the names of the dead has been viewed as a powerful act in many cultures and at various time periods in history. In cultures where a necronym taboo is still present, a powerful mythology may surround death and dying, and people may perform other rituals to ensure that the dead cross over smoothly, and to avoid bringing down bad luck. In these cultures, the idea of naming a child after the recently dead may be viewed as repugnant or highly offensive, rather than a mark of honor.

The use of necronyms has created some interesting problems for genealogists and historians, especially in the West, where children may be named after dead siblings. It can be hard to figure out which sibling is under discussion, or to confirm dates of birth and death for people with identical names.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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