Mormon Language

September 1, 2008 | 46 comments
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I can’t resist telling this one again. Last May in priesthood meeting the photographers collecting photos for the ward directory suggested that the photos might end up on the “Blogosphere.” After they mentioned the word “Blogosphere” three times, I replied: “In the Church, we call it the “Bloggernacle.”

To my surprise, this drew gaffaws from the entire room, as if I had invented the term there and then as a joke of some kind.

Clearly, the Bloggernacle is just an subset of LDS Church members, who find something that resonates here. But we should keep in mind that most members hardly know what a blog is, let alone the Bloggernacle.

When I discussed this on A Motley Vision, I asked for new terms (Mo-terms, as one commenter called them) — words or phrases that have been recently invented, or that have somehow come up with a Mormon context or meaning that they didn’t have before.

Since then, I’ve realized that we really have an extensive Mormon-specific vocabulary, if you look at words carefully. In addition to terms that have been invented for Mormonism, we have a lot of terms that seem familiar to others, but have meanings that are unique to Mormonism. Tabernacle, Sustain, Seventy, Auxiliaries and Release all have specific Mormon meanings or contexts that make their use sometimes unintelligible to others.

This is nothing new. Years ago Orson Scott Card put together a dictionary of sorts, Saintspeak: The Mormon Dictionary, published in 1981 and now long out of print. But it wasn’t much of a dictionary, because it was meant to be a joke, a way of poking fun at ourselves.

Personally, I don’t believe that Mormon language is necessarily a joke. Yes many of our terms are odd or funny (but then what language doesn’t have a few terms that are inherently funny or at least odd). And I even see a role for a kind of list of Mormon terms.

I’m not the only one. The compilers of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism included a glossary of basic Mormon terms, which has been pirated by several LDS sites as a guide for non-Members to LDS terms. Unfortunately, it is out-of-date (doesn’t include Area Authority Seventy), very incomplete, doesn’t include historical terms (no Gleaners or M-Men) and oriented towards formal language (includes Relief Society, but not Molly Mormon).

The more that I look at this, I think there are probably several thousand terms that have Mormon meanings to them, especially if you include common phrases that have come to mean more than the individual words in English mean (“indicate by the uplifted hand” or “physical death” or “testament of Jesus Christ”).

So, I’ve started collecting a list of such terms, and, borrowing from the Wiktionary, I’ve put together the site Mormon Terms hoping that others will see some value in such a list. The site is in its infancy (don’t expect much – I think I just have one term set up so far, and a list of terms that can be done that start with “A”), but I have a list of several thousand potential terms to add in the next few days and weeks.

I guess the question here is if such a dictionary has value. The Church itself hasn’t tried to put together such a glossary — believing, I suppose, that new members will somehow learn the terminology, or that it will give them an opportunity to interact with other members by asking what things mean.

But even if it is best to leave new members without a detailed guide, I think that such a list is valuable for helping us understand ourselves and the culture that Mormons have developed. Since culture needs groups of people that communicate with each other, the language that group uses to communicate is the container of their culture. Without knowing the language we use, we can’t hope to understand our culture.

Oh, and before I forget to mention it, many missionaries discover that its kind of hard to find adequate definitions of these terms in dictionaries. Since their meanings are often unique to Mormonism, the definitions in dictionaries, if any, usually don’t convey what we expect. Even though I speak Portuguese quite well, and understand Spanish well enough to read Dom Quixote and Calderon, I still don’t know how to translate terms like “added upon” or “common consent” without consulting a dictionary or searching online. And with some terms, the only thing that makes sense is to try to make up a term in the other language (should Molly Mormon be Maria Mormón in Spanish? Maybe Peter Priestood in Portuguese should be Simão Sacerdócio?) [BIG GRIN - I'm sure they wouldn't understand these.]

So, I think there is a role for a good dictionary of Mormon terms. Agreed?

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46 Responses to Mormon Language

  1. Ginger on September 1, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Should we really be defining terms such as Molly Mormon and Peter Priesthood which are generally derogatory and shouldn’t be used anyway?

  2. NoCoolName_Tom on September 1, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Ginger:
    I’d argue that we *should* be defining those terms if only because they are still used and need defining. There are those in the Church who dislike the terms “free agency”, “pre-mortality”, and “pre-existence”. I understand they are not derogatory, but important people seem to feel that they should not be used (I disagree with them, but that’s beside the point). This new project needs to do its best to define everything, good and bad / wanted and unwanted, if only because the larger the context the greater the understanding.

    Perhaps far in the future when, like much of Elizabethan English, Church language has moved on from such terms then maybe it would be correct to drop them from the LDS dictionary. Only maybe – I’d rather keep them there and update the definitions to the new modern standards.

  3. Tatiana on September 1, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I think it’s a great idea. I’ve been a convert for seven years now and y’all in the bloggernacle use terms I don’t understand all the time.

  4. queuno on September 1, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    But we should keep in mind that most members hardly know what a blog is, let alone the Bloggernacle.

    Define “most members”. Your average email/web-literate member in the US knows what a blog is.

  5. Jonovitch on September 1, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    At least half the Church membership is not American (where the Bloggernacle is currently concentrated), and large numbers of the international membership live in second- and even third-world conditions. Those members who live in first-world conditions may or may not be familiar enough with the Web to the point of knowing what a blog is, to say nothing of the Bloggernacle.

    Considering these factors together, I would guess the number of LDS who know what’s going on around here is probably still relatively small. Try it out. Go around your ward next Sunday, stopping random people in the hall, and ask them what blogs they read in the Bloggernacle this week. I’m guessing you’ll get plenty of blank stares.

    Jon

  6. doug on September 1, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Awesome. I’m in. As a weekly purveyor/consumer of Mormon language (I provide American Sign Language interpretation in all levels of meetings both Sundays and otherwise), this is a great asset. Can’t wait to see it grow; can’t believe I didn’t think of it first.

    Do you have a model for this: add first, ask questions later? Or does one have to show up to the party ready to expound each time?

  7. Kent Larsen on September 1, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Doug its pretty simple. Go to http://www.mormonterms.com and register. That will allow you to access all the pages, edit pages, and participate in full.

    Its a wiki, just like wikipedia. In fact, it uses the same software as wikipedia. Anyone can participate, edit the terms, add their own terms, etc.

  8. MoJo on September 1, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Saintspeak: The Mormon Dictionary

    I have that.

  9. doug on September 1, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    Right. I get the wiki concept. I think you already answered the intent of my question, albeit my poor wording before. Mea culpa.

  10. Wilfried on September 1, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    “The Church itself hasn’t tried to put together such a glossary”

    Kent, there is at least the A-Z index on http://www.lds.org (see top of the page). It is more topical than lexical, but still contains quite a few “official” definitions of Mormon terms. e.g.
    Deacon – An office of the Aaronic Priesthood. A boy is normally ordained a deacon when he is 12 years of age or older. Some of a deacon’s responsibilities are to pass the sacrament and collect fast offerings from the members.
    Quorum – An organized group of men or young men who have the same office in the priesthood. Most quorums are governed by a president and two counselors.

    The linking system leads to many definitions of terms such as endowment, garments, terrestrial, etc.

  11. Ray on September 1, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Personally, I can’t stand slang terms that separate and divide members into classifications that are used derogatorily by some to disdain others. “Peter Priesthood”, “Molly Mormon”, “TBM” and so many others come to mind. I don’t want these pejorative terms to last, so I certainly don’t want them to be included in anything that lends a perceived degree of “officialness” to their use. I wish they could be dropped in the same trash can as other pejoratives that we have to reference obliquely (or by citing just the first letter and adding “word”) if we use them at all.

    Of course, I realize that my wishes mean absolutely nothing and will not have an impact at all, but I still can wish.

  12. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Ray, I don’t think that’s how language works or what linguists try to do in compiling dictionaries.

    There has always been a tension between policy positions like yours, and actual usage. Should a dictionary reflect the words we should use? or should it reflect what we actually use?

    Today, the emphasis is mostly on the latter. My own opinion is that it is better to be able to admit and label a pejorative term as such, than let it gain the mystique associated with it being ‘naughty’ in some way.

    You see this idea behind George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” If they hadn’t been banned, Carlin’s routine wouldn’t have been funny. Somehow paying attention to the words, actually gave them more power and currency.

    Compare that to curse words and other offensive terms have tended to either become banal (Gosh, for example) or anachronistic over time.

    I’m not saying that will happen with curse words. Like it or not they fill a function, albeit a base one. I think society needs that outlet some how. But I think it is clear that they gain a lot of power and probably more usage because they are taboo.

  13. christopher johnson on September 2, 2008 at 1:18 am

    I think Peter Priesthood and Molly Mormon describe people negatively and this is because either
    A) the speaker has rebellious tendencies and therefore a person who is obedient becomes a target or
    B) the target is, as a matter of consensus, annoying the heck out of everybody because of a misprioritization of commandments. (The type that isn’t very nice and won’t ever wash his dishes.)

  14. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 1:51 am

    So, Christopher, are these terms that Mormons should employ?

    And, more to the point of this post, should these terms be included in a dictionary of Mormon terms?

  15. Michelle Glauser on September 2, 2008 at 2:42 am

    Of course we should define both negative and positive terms. Can’t know the good without the bad, can you? Who better to hear about the negative from than those being ridiculed? Plus, if we want to be descriptive and not prescriptive like normal dictionaries, they must be in there. If not, that would be like the dictionary having the word “god” but not “devil.” It just doesn’t work that way. (And just to say, they aren’t always used negatively. I’m proud to be a Molly Mormon.)

  16. Wilfried on September 2, 2008 at 9:02 am

    As a linguist I concur with the idea that all words must be included in a dictionary. However, usage should be clarified with indications such as slang, derogatory, popular… Moreover, where applicable, it should also be clarified that a word can have both positive and negative connotations according to the context. Sample sentences from real use help. It seems that an interesting aspect would also be regional use. Is there not something like Utah- or Wasatch-speak for certain words?

  17. MoJo on September 2, 2008 at 10:07 am

    (And just to say, they aren’t always used negatively. I’m proud to be a Molly Mormon.)

    Michelle, indeed. My husband (inactive for most of his life with attendant bad-boy behaviors, who then came back to the church in his 30s) thinks “Molly Mormon” is everything good in the world and what he wanted in a wife. He had never been exposed to the culture in which it’s a pejorative. I have, thus, when he first started calling me a “Molly Mormon” (cause I make stuff) as a compliment, it became a point of contention.

    So, yeah, I think it should be included–in both incarnations because, at least for two people in the world, it means wildly different things.

  18. Ray on September 2, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    #12 – Kent, I understand that. That’s why I said I know it’s only a wish.

  19. BruceC on September 2, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    #11 – Ray, Here is an example of why the dictionary would be cool. I have no idea what “TBM” is. I guess living out in the “mission field” has its price.

  20. Hunter on September 2, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Yes, Kent, I agree that there is a role for a dictionary of Mormon words. I am seriously considering including a glossary of Mormon terms as an appendix to the life history I’m writing about my dad. It would be for the benefit of the non-Mormon reader. So, yes, let’s wiki away on this. And thanks!

  21. Ray on September 2, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    #19 – BruceC, the funny part of that response is that I was raised in Utah but never heard the term TBM until fairly recently – while living in Ohio.

  22. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    OK, I’m calling on everyone to put their “money where their mouth is.”

    Despite the enthusiasm, no one has yet registered on the Mormon Terms website.

    Because of the spam that hits wikis, registration is required to make any edits on the site.

    Thanks for the support!

  23. MoJo on September 2, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Well, Kent, I’m not on that number in my to-do list yet. Gimme a minute, will ya? ;)

  24. Visorstuff on September 2, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    I agree with #10. And, the “new member” edition of the Ensign contained some terms that new members find unusual. I look forward to checking out the new site, however….good stuff!

  25. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    FWIW, I’ve updated the list of potential terms to include words beginning with “b.” You can look at the list here.

    They all need to be defined.

  26. Matt Rasmussen on September 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    I’ve never liked the term “bloggernacle” partly because it dumbs-down the place of worship and inspiration that is the “tabernacle,” partly because it sounds hokey, and mostly because I’m just opinionated. The wiki seems helpful but not enough so to compel me to take the time to register and update entries.

  27. kuri on September 2, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    I think a dictionary would be be useful. When I had just joined the Church (in 1982), people in my new ward kept saying things like, “So-and-so is up at the Y.” I couldn’t figure out why Mormons spent so much time at the YMCA. The first time I heard someone say “sister missionaries,” I thought, “How nice that siblings can go on a mission together.” Probably any convert has stories like this.

  28. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Matt (26), while I think “bloggernacle” has stuck, terms do change and evolve. Blogs are relatively new, so the terminology around them is new, and new words don’t have the history that makes them hard to change.

    SO, go for it. Come up with an alternate term. If its really got some advantage that ‘bloggernacle’ doesn’t have, it just might become the accepted term.

    As far as the wiki is concerned, do you mean that the idea seems helpful, but not enough?

    Or do you mean that the wiki as it is now (in its infancy) seems helpful, but not enough?

    I just want to make sure that everyone realizes that the wiki is in its infancy. Don’t judge it too harshly now. It will get better, even if I’m the only one working on it.

    OTOH, if you think the idea isn’t helpful enough, I hereby release you from any calling to work on it [GRIN]

  29. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    kuri, great stories. I agree that many converts have no doubt run into similar problems.

    But the only thing that I can think of that is close to this is a missionary language joke. Have you heard the one about the newly-arrived Sister missionary in a Spanish-speaking country? When the bishop asked her to speak in Church, she began her talk with:

    “Soy tan embarazada, y es el culpa del Obispo!”

    [embarazada, sounds like "embarassed" but is a false cognate that means pregnant. So what she actually said was, "I'm so pregnant, and its the Bishop's fault!]

  30. Kent Larsen on September 2, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Matt (26):

    One more detail on the term “tabernacle.” I’m not sure if it is as well known today, but in the 19th century and early 20th century, this word referred to not just THE Tabernacle on Temple Square, but also to the various tabernacles that were constructed in each town. Its function was kind of like that of a stake center today.

    Because of that, I don’t think of the term “bloggernacle” as referring so much to THE Tabernacle, but rather to A Tabernacle, or possibly even to the New Testament use of the word, referring to our bodies (thus, the bloggernacle is the “body” or container of Mormon blogs).

    I don’t know if that helps.

  31. James McMurray on September 2, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    #19 – “TBM” is one I never came across until I discovered the Bloggernacle. Maybe I just never heard it before? This does raise another interesting issue in that the Bnacle seems to have its own subset of vocabulary/shorthand terms many mainstream LDS might not be aware of.

    I’ll attempt a definition of TBM: TBM = “True Blue Mormons” are active members of the church without serious doubts and likely uninterested in the things like the unending discussions that go on here on the Bloggernacle. While the term seems to often be used negatively by those who don’t consider themselves to be such, if you confronted a TBM with this type of “slander,” your response would probably be “Heck ya I am!”

  32. Matt Evans on September 3, 2008 at 12:59 am

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or seen an active Mormon use the term “TBM” — the only places I’ve seen it used are at sites catering to ex-Mormons.

  33. Kent Larsen on September 3, 2008 at 8:00 am

    Matt (32):

    “Yankee Doodle” was originally a term of derision accepted by Americans.

    Remember, these things take time to develop.

  34. alex valencic on September 3, 2008 at 10:16 am

    So, I have lived in Illinois for most of my 25 years. (Spent two years in California and six months in Australia). Until just a few minutes ago, I had never seen “TBM.” I’ve heard it said – folks who refer to themselves as “true blue mormons” but I’ve never encountered it as an abbreviation. Of course, I’ve also generally held a beef with people referring to the Doctrine and Covenants (in spoken word) as the “D and C” because that happens to be the medical abbreviation for Dilation & Curretage… But I would also point out that “nobody calls the Book of Mormon the ‘B of M’” Then I went on a mission and found out that it was usually abbreviated as the BOM… and the weirdness of Mormon-speak continues…

    Anyway, I don’t think that Molly Mormon and Peter Priesthood are specifically derogatory so much as they describe a certain type of member of the Church. Some use it with pride, some with derision, and others simply as a descriptor that is neither positive nor negative. Which would produce the question: in the Mormon dictionary, wouldn’t it be better to not define such terms as derogatory? Or maybe it falls under the same category as the n-word being used casually among members of the “in-group” but being forbidden among those in the “out-group.”

    Regardless, I am in total favour of the project and will add the wiki to my list of things to do!

  35. Matt Rasmussen on September 3, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Kent, I meant the wiki is helpful but not enough to solve the problem of colloquial misunderstandings. First is the issue of raising awareness of the resource (be it a wiki, a printed publication, etc.) I know people who are still unaware that they can read conference talks and manuals on lds.org even though it’s been well advertised by the Church. Then there’s the issue of people using the same term to mean separate things. Molly Mormon means you’re either the most well-rounded woman Relief Society has to offer or you’re frumpy with delicate sensibilities. We better serve each other when we don’t make up slang words because we’re too lazy to say exactly what we mean.

  36. Kent Larsen on September 3, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Alex (34), Off the top of my head, I’d want to deal with the issue of whether to list a term as “derogatory” on a case-by-case basis. What we need to do in the case of “Molly Mormon” or “Peter Priesthood,” is create the entry and discuss whether or not to list them as “derogatory” on the talk page for those entries.

  37. Kent Larsen on September 3, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Matt (35):

    I don’t think I agree with your assessment. Yes, any resource has the problem that knowledge about it is limited. I agree that likely only a subset of members will know that the wiki exists. But I don’t think that makes the effort without merit. Reference works tend to have a long life, and I believe that, even if only a minority of LDS Church members use the site, it will still justify the effort.

    As for multiple meanings, I think we would try to capture those multiple meanings in the definition.

    And as for slang, well, its not evil. Using one word versus another is often done for some reason or other. Sometimes its because, as you state, the speaker doesn’t want to take the time to say what they mean in more detail. If you ask me, that’s legitimate. Should I, in a similar fashion, call this a blog? Or should I call it a web log or a website?

    Other times, slang is used to create a more familiar and less formal atmosphere. I often address my friends as “dude” or “bro,” instead of “my friend.” Have I erred in doing so?

    Slang has its purposes and uses. Using slang isn’t always best in all circumstances, but there are clearly times when its use is the right way to go.

  38. Alison Moore Smith on September 3, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve lived in Utah and out of Utah, I’ve had a web site since 1994, and been actively blogging for some time. I only learned today, on this post, what a TBM was.

    Here are some definitions you probably haven’t added yet:

    Mo Power to Ya!

  39. kuri on September 3, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    “Alex (34), Off the top of my head, I’d want to deal with the issue of whether to list a term as “derogatory” on a case-by-case basis. What we need to do in the case of “Molly Mormon” or “Peter Priesthood,” is create the entry and discuss whether or not to list them as “derogatory” on the talk page for those entries. ”

    You could also add a category such as “sometimes derogatory” or “often derogatory” for terms with varied shades of meaning.

  40. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 4, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    During the presidential primaries, Mitt Romney said he was “a Mormon, true blue, through and through.” HIs non-Mormon listeners did not know that he was paraphrasing a story from the life of Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith, who at about 16 years of age became an orphan when his mother died, and was sent on a mission to Hawaii, where he had the vision of the Prophet Joseph we have read of. On the journey home, camped somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas, he was carrying firewood back to the camp when confronted by some ruffians with guns who asked him “Are you a Mormon?” His reply was “Yes, true blue, through and through.” The ruffians were taken aback by his honesty and bravery, and left without molesting him or his companions. Clearly, Joseph F. was a TBM, and so is Mitt Romney. Not bad company.

  41. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 4, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    More on the original story–As the Gospel Doictrine teacher for the past 8 years, I found that most people in my class were unfamiliar with the writings of Hugh Nibley and the works of those associated with FARMS, which I used quite a bit, especially in teaching about the Book of Mormon. Often someone would come up after class and ask about a book or article I had quoted from, while I never heard someone volunteer any information they had gotten themselves from that source. Maybe I didn’t do my job well enough in promoting interest in FARMS, much of whose work product is now available online. There was certainly no hostility to the information. The response was quite interested and positive to the information I shared. I just never saw any indications that anyone was interested in subscribing to the FARMS Review or buying one of the books. And this includes people with graduate degrees in law and engineering.

    About the only person in our ward who has read this stuff at length is a GA who has not been allowed to become emeritus yet, who will drop in a few times a year. Of my three grown kids, only my daughter shares my enthusiasm for reading FARMS and Nibley, even though I give them all books every Christmas. Is this lack of strong interest in FARMS and scholarly work on Church history and the Book of Mormon typical?

  42. Nitsav on September 4, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    “Is this lack of strong interest in FARMS and scholarly work on Church history and the Book of Mormon typical? ”

    Yes, sadly enough. Most LDS are content to read their KJV and display unread Deseret Book volumes on their shelves.

  43. MoJo on September 4, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I just never saw any indications that anyone was interested in subscribing to the FARMS Review or buying one of the books. And this includes people with graduate degrees in law and engineering.

    Yes, sadly enough. Most LDS are content to read their KJV and display unread Deseret Book volumes on their shelves.

    You’re assuming “most LDS” know FARMS exists.

  44. Kylie Turley on September 5, 2008 at 10:35 am

    FYI, FARMS is now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. It is based at BYU.

  45. Nitsav on September 5, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    “FYI, FARMS is now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.”

    Yes, but if most don’t know what FARMS is, no one knows what NAMIRS is.

  46. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Just to update anyone that passes by this post, Mormon Terms now includes a list of more than 750 potential terms covering the letters A through M. The rest of the alphabet should be done in the next few weeks. We should also see a number of definitions entered.

    There are three issues we are starting to wrestle with:
    1. Defining what terms should actually be added to the wiki. The terms in the list of potential terms have not been studied to determine whether or not they should be added. And we don’t even really have a standard for what should be added. Off the top of my head, I think the wiki should include:

    * Only terms that have some meaning, shade of meaning or cultural significance different from the general use. (so yes, include “Bishop,” but don’t include “Health.”) Of course, the definitions should focus not only on the meaning of the word, but how Mormon use or cultural significance is different.

    This might requires some investigation before a potential term is added. For example, entering the term in a search engine and comparing the results that come from Mormon sites to those that come from non-Mormon sites may help establish whether or not the meaning is different and whether or not it should be included.

    Also, looking at the definition of a word in the Wictionary or in another dictionary and comparing that definition to how the term is used in Mormon documents (websites, General Conference talks, the Church magazines, etc.) may help show that the definition is different in the Mormon context

    2. Another area where we could use some input is the standard format for an entry. Again we have copied the layout from the Wictionary, but it may need to be modified to fit our use. See Layout for the entry layout at the moment. I’d love to hear some ideas for how it should be modified.

    3. I also think we also need to provide users with some guidance about what information should be included in the definition. In my view, we should be defining the term and how it is used. We should NOT be defining the doctrine! That is done elsewhere and doesn’t need to be duplicated.

    I don’t have all the answers about these issues, nor can I do this entire project by myself. So please help me make some progress on this useful, and I think important, project.

    I look forward to seeing your input and help.

WELCOME

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