A family genealogist discovered that his grandparent who was believed to have had six siblings actually had two more who had died very young; one died a few days after birth. The firstborn died at the age of one year old. My cousin referred to this firstborn as "the eldest". I found it jarring to hear someone who died at the age of one called "the eldest". Is that normal usage and am I out of line? Or does "eldest" actually mean that one has reached an age greater than the others in his/her group?

  • I have done a lot of family history research myself, and prior to the twentieth century it was rare for all children in a family to survive their first few years. But I see nothing wrong with using the term eldest for the one you mention, though if it offends anyone - by all means use firstborn, second-born etc.
    – WS2
    Sep 3 '15 at 14:08
  • I would agree with you: it sounds odd to me too. Eldest does indeed mean that someone has reached an age greater than others in their group at some point during their lifetime. They may well have died sooner than the others in the group, but there should be a period of time when the others in the group looked upon this person as the oldest in the group. In this case, the firstborn was never anything but an only-child: by the time the second child came around, the firstborn was no longer alive. Sep 3 '15 at 14:12
  • This is all different if we’re talking about groups that we ourselves are part of, though: “My oldest/eldest brother died when he was only two months old” would be all right to me, for some reason, even though “They had three children, of which the eldest died when he was only two months old” is strange-sounding. Sep 3 '15 at 14:14

I checked the Wordnik page, which said:

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English
adj. Oldest; longest in duration
adj. Born or living first, or before the others, as a son, daughter, brother, etc.; first in origin

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia
Oldest; most advanced in age; that was born first: as, the eldest son or daughter.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University
n. the offspring who came first in the order of birth
adj. first in order of birth

So, evidently, there's some precedent for the word being used either way.

I also found this interesting usage in a 2002 biography:

I hardly remembered Rolland, either. He was the eldest but died when he was twenty-two, a couple of years after his mother's death. I was a grown woman, with children of my own...

Source: Moving Out: A Nebraska Woman's Life by Polly Spence, 2002

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