• posthumous •
pahs-chê-mês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Occurring, appearing, happening after death. 2. Born after the death of the father.
Notes: Today's contributor, Jennifer Malec, warns us not to be misled by the H in this word: it is bogus and shouldn't be there (see Word History). This means that the pronunciation given above is the only possible pronunciation of this word. In particular, avoid pronouncing TH the usual way. It does allow an adverb, posthumously, as to publish a book posthumously (after the death of the author).
In Play: Today's Good Word makes sense only if we assume it refers to the death of the most logical person: "Heath Ledger's great performance in The Dark Knight has led to speculation that he might receive the first posthumous Oscar this year." Obviously, this sentence does not refer to the death of Oscar. Keep in mind that the original meaning of this word is still active: "Billy Joe was the posthumous son of Wiley Fox, even though he doesn't bear much resemblance to Wiley."
Word History: We have spoken of folk etymology in connection with Good Words like kickshaw and love. Today's Good Word is the result of Latin folk etymology. It originated as postumus "last, last-born", the superlative of posterus "(coming) after". However, as the meaning drifted more and more toward "after death", it was confused with humus "earth" and humare "to bury, inter", suggesting death, and the H slipped into the spelling so that it looked like post "after" + humus "(going into the) earth". It never contained, however, the sound represented by the digraph TH. (We are very happy that our gratitude to Jennifer Malec for suggesting today's tricky Good Word is not posthumous.)
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