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Odd baby names show Mormons are unique … like everyone else

A guest post by Jennifer Mansfield

On March 3, 2012, Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring cast members impersonating Mitt Romney and his sons. The actors portraying Mitt Romney’s five adult sons introduced themselves—the first as Tagg, which is Mitt Romney’s oldest son’s name. The other four sons called themselves Tanner, Tictac, Targalack, and Tiggit. (The names of Mitt Romney’s other four sons are actually Craig, Ben, Matt, and Josh.)

While the skit was obviously meant to convey something about Mitt Romney personally, it also pointed out what writers may have believed to be a notable and humorous characteristic of Mormons: distinctive naming practices.

SNL’s decision to portray the sons as replicas of one another may provide clues about why “Mormon Corridor” Mormons are often known for practicing distinctive naming patterns, as was pointed out recently in a By Common Consent blog post by Jessie Jensen. In 2012, I explored this phenomenon in my master’s thesis project titled “‘It’s Wraylynn—with a W’: Distinctive Mormon Naming Practices.”

Among other things, I wanted to better understand the motivations for the distinctive contemporary Mormon naming practices that are visible enough to be picked up by the wider American culture. Where else but in the Mormon world would we find names like Aimzlee, LaMar, Kaisen, Legend, Brylianna, Xylie, Drasyn, Kaybree, Race, Breydin, and Haizley?

Saturday Night Live’s skit suggests that the wider American population seems to view all Mormons as culturally homogenous while Mormons themselves see the “Mormon Corridor” as a different subgroup within Mormonism. The “Mormon Corridor” (“Jell-O Belt”) subculture has been created out of the concentration of Mormons in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona, which has led to a notably homogenous group.

In contrast, Mormons outside of Utah are generally part of a community that consists of large numbers of non-Mormons. According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2012 survey of over 1,000 members of the LDS Church, 55% of Mormons in the United States report that most or all of their close friends are Mormon. In Utah, on the other hand, 73% of Mormons say that most or all of their close friends are also Mormon. This illustrates how similar many Mormons may be from one another, culturally speaking.

In addition to this high level of cultural homogeneity, the LDS Church is also distinctive in the degree of counsel, guidelines, and behavioral expectations it gives to its members. The Church dictates members’ sexual practices, what does and does not go into their bodies, and how time should be spent in religious-oriented activities. Even personal appearance is dictated to some degree through standards of dress, prohibitions on multiple piercings and tattoos, and a caution against “extreme” hairstyles.

Perhaps because naming is one of few areas in which the Church has not formally instructed its members, Mormons in heavily Mormon areas might use naming as a way to set them apart and express individuality to some degree. Ironically, the act of unique and creative naming does not set them apart, but instead is another characteristic shared with many of their Mormon neighbors.

Interestingly, distinctive naming patterns seem to be a less-common practice for Mormons outside of the Mormon Corridor. In these places, being a Mormon in and of itself makes a person different from his or her neighbors because Mormons are a visible sub-culture. An LDS Living write-up of my research prompted a comment from sweetcarol126:

“…I realize there are names like that and they hold their names proudly, but I wouldn’t do it in my mixed culture of being Mormon and being where most of my neighbors are not. Our lifestyle makes us unusual enough and we get opportunities to say that we are Mormon. They believe us without the strange name” [emphasis mine].

This comment underscores the idea that belonging to the LDS Church outside the Mormon Corridor is usually enough to distinguish Mormons from their neighbors. Contrast that idea, again, with the fact that 73% of Mormons in Utah report that the majority of their friends are also Mormon.

Mormonism isn’t enough to make you distinct when people who are distinct in the exact same ways surround you on every side.

It seems as though members in Utah feel so similar to everyone else that (consciously or unconsciously) they try to find other ways to express their individuality in ways that do not carry negative consequences. Names carry an especially heavy weight in the LDS Church (perhaps inspired to some extent by Helaman 5:6-7), so naming feels like a meaningful place to invest creativity without suffering the repercussions that come from being different in other ways.

That all being said, my strong impression is that very few Mormons deliberately use baby naming practices to rebel against the pressures of social conformity that come along with being part of a tight-knit religious subculture. No one I’ve spoken with seems to realize that their “unique” names are not unique at all, but instead are yet another characteristic they share with many of their Mormon neighbors.

Jenny MansfieldJennifer Mansfield is a folklorist currently living with her husband and young daughter in Cache Valley, Utah. She loves college so much that she decided to teach at Utah State University after completing her education there.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

40 Comments

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  • I thought this article was going to be about distinctive Mormon names like Orson, Heber, Mitt, Rulon, etc. Hasn’t wider America gone for unusual spellings or new rhymings of other “established” names? (Brayden Jaden Kayden etc.). Freakonomics explored this subject.
    The good news is that Mormons should be less likely to have to give their names to Starbucks baristas..

  • I love it. “The Church dictates…” The Church does not dictate, it teaches. We can follow or choose not to follow. Otherwise, this was a great article. Now I await the brutal attacks on me from those who think the Church dictates. Have fun guys!

  • It’s very odd that you use Romney as an example of “corridor” Mormonism when he grew up in Michigan and lived his adult life in Massachusetts, and that his wife is a convert who also is not from the Utah corridor.

  • Interesting and enjoyable article, thanks. I agree with the comment about what the Church “dictates”, however. For example, the reference to the Church “dictating sexual practices.” The Church simply teaches its members to avoid any sexual relations outside of marriage.

  • Merriam-Webster’s definition of dictate is “to impose, pronounce, or specify authoritatively”.

    There are penalties imposed by the Church under the mantle of Priesthood authority for not adhering to the principles listed by the author. I’m not sure how it is possible for “dictate” to not apply here. We can choose to follow or choose not to follow anything or anyone at any time. For example, Utah has more restrictive laws regarding alcohol sales than those of almost any other states. Utah imposes penalties on those who disobey these laws within its jurisdiction. Anyone who doesn’t want to follow can choose to drive to another state to buy their alcohol. Only those who disobey these laws in Utah’s jurisdiction are penalized. Similarly, anyone who is not a member of the Church doesn’t need to obey its rules. But anyone who is under the Church’s “jurisdiction” (i.e. a member) will be penalized – like losing membership, or not being able to become a member in the first place. Just like Utah dictates laws (even though they only apply in Utah), the Church dictates rules (even though they only apply to members).

  • I understand Mormon boys being named Hyrum, Porter, or Parley. Nephi ,or Moroni if you’re really bold, can be good middle names. Heck, I was tempted to name my daughter Olea. So I can dig Mormon parents naming their children after names in Church History and Mormon scripture. But I detest the mixing and chaotic spelling of traditional names. No naming your kid Chairid or Mikel. Just because one parent likes Stephenie and the other likes Lisa doesn’t mean they should call their new bundle of joy Stephisa or Lisanie. Just because this form of child abuse is legal it doesn’t make it right.

  • I guess you are just going to have to live with the fact that I disagree with you. I also disagree that members of the Church will be excommunicated to consuming alcohol. However, you have as much right to your opinion as I do to mine. We have rhetorical differences.

  • “Where else but in the Mormon world would we find names like Aimzlee, LaMar, Kaisen, Legend, Brylianna, Xylie, Drasyn, Kaybree, Race, Breydin, and Hazily?”

    Well, how about in the African-American sub-culture? In fact, some of those names would sound like African-American names to people living outside the Mormon Corridor. There was a story just today on NPR about African-Americans feeling that because of their names they were being discriminated against by Airbnb hosts (black and white, btw), so people obviously hear certain names as belonging to a particular group. I don’t live in The Corridor yet my kids went to school with many uniquely named classmates (though the spellings weren’t nearly as creative), so maybe it isn’t as Mormon as you think!

  • No one said members would be excommunicated for drinking alcohol. There are more things the Church dictates regarding what goes into your body than alcohol. The Church does, however, dictate people cannot be baptized (become a member) if they don’t agree to live the WoW – which includes not drinking alcohol… and tea and coffee, etc.

    They also can and have been excommunicated for violating the Law of Chastity. Notice the word “Law”, not just teaching or suggestion.

  • I am surprised at you all. Why not call a Mormon baby “Moroni?” The name Joseph Smith, Brigham Young mean anything to you? Sure were the most famous Mormons, but with names not too odd.

  • Well, the government sure put the cool on multiple wives. Now the Mormons can only have one legal wife. But what does that say about sex outside of marriage legally if the Mormon husband has one legal wife but has 3 more women that are also wives? Hmmm. Is that what the Mormons would call sex outside of marriage if they have sex with other than the four?

  • The Mormon church absolutely dictates, in a “form” of teaching. You must do this, and in the teaching. The teaching means also they way they are supposed to live and actually is dictating. No difference.

  • What happens if the Mormon drinks coffee, or CocaCola? Or whatever else they forbid? Is that also in the obedience they “teach” or dictate? I know a man who was converted to Mormonism, in fact a neighbor. That lasted just a few days when he learned they weren’t allowed to drink coffee. He became an ex Mormon quickly. He was my next door neighbor.

  • The Mormon church is one that appears to be the worst case of placing people, its people under the law.

  • Well, at least one can be Mormon free going to Starbucks, unless of course they might run into a few hypocrits!

  • Not at all, Starbucks does have some drinks that don’t involve coffee. So a Mormon with friends that like to hang out at Starbucks can join them without a problem.

  • Ironically, if you call your three unmarried women friends your wives, you will be prosecuted. But if you just call them mistresses, you are doing nothing illegal.

  • When you are punished and ostracized and lose benefits associated with being an active Mormon if you don’t follow their “teaching”, then yes, the church is dictating. But you keep telling yourself they don’t! Gotta love that cognitive dissonance.

  • Most logical people disagree with you. There are punishments for not “following the church’s teachings.” This indicates that they are dictating. If you don’t pay your 10%, you won’t be able to attend your son/daughter’s wedding. This is a prime example of dictating.

  • My cousin’s daughter’s name is Olea, but I have never heard of it in the scriptures or anywhere.

  • Real Mormons, members of the 15 million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who publish the Book of Mormon and broadcast the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, do not practice polygamy, and they will be excommunicated from the Church if they try to. The same goes for simple adultery.
    There are a number of small groups that claim to have a Mormon heritage, and practice polygamy, but they have separated from the real Mormons just as decisively as Lutherans are not Catholics.

  • My family has “unusual” names because most of us have Japanese names to reflect our heritage. My Japanese mother was raised in a Russian Orthodox family in Japan, so all of the family members were christened with a “Christian” name like Grigory or Ekaterina. Two of my grandkids have their Japanese names up front: Sakura and Musashi. We all have the kanji (Chinese characters) for our Japanese names that have been brush painted by my Mom. We like the names, and like being distinctive, and have not felt the need to create new names or spellings.

  • Original names and spellings are a cultural artifact of black culture and southern culture. Cybill shepherd was named for two of her uncles. And we recall the Saturday Night Live sketch in which a day camp for black kids is calling them up one by one.

  • I know of quite a few Utah names where the children have combinations of their parents’s names. Maybe only in the African-American community does that happen as much.
    I have also known a few Ammons, and more recently Teancum. But not necessarily from Utah, but definitely LDS.

  • My children have mostly non-traditional names. Call us odd but they also tend to excel in their classes and social groups.
    And we are LDS in a community that is maybe 2-3 percent members of the church. My wife never lived in Utah (two months of Provo Missionary Training Center, ok that can leave a mark) and I am from the mid-west.

  • Wrong. LDS Mormons only marry one partner since 1890. And I will add, no other demographic in the US has fewer sexual partners than Mormons. Maybe Amish have fewer. But Mormons are exactly opposite of what you claim. What else do you falsely claim?

  • Why did multiple wives come into the picture anyways? The Bible forbids it in the NT. Or was this a “revelation” to Joseph Smith?

  • Amish you know little about. They only believe in one wife. THEY follow the Bible, not the book of Mormon.

  • I don’t falsely claim anything. It was one of the reasons however why normal people persecuted the Mormons. It was outlawed by the US, and it is bigotry. I go by what was true in the past and I am no stranger to this. Have you read the book “Cults and World Religions?” I have and one you might wish to read before making any hasty judgements.

  • I am comparing actual spousal partners between people of different faiths. Christians of all kinds get divorced in high numbers, and end up having multiple spouses. In the last 100 years Mormons have had far fewer divorces and out of wedlock partners than any other faith except possibly the Amish, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren of Christ. I know a lot more about these groups than most people and you need to understand the reality of what I am saying. LDS men have fewer wives than almost any other group, following the Bible principles and commandments very well, as it should be according to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Mormons believe that entirely, and live it as true Christians should.

  • So you meant to use the past tense word “had”. Otherwise, your original statement is a slanderous lie, and yes, inaccurate and false. Check your words and your assertions and consider telling or even entertaining the truth of how things are.
    Mormons do not have too many wives, we have fewer than almost any other Christian faith.
    I have had one partner, one wife. How many have you and your friends had? Since 1900. You don’t need to answer me, just realize how hypocritical those claims are.

  • I was posting, if you noticed, about the man being married to more than one woman at a time. That is illegal under the law as well as in the present day Mormon church. If they are compelled to go to hell and that is a looming threat over their heads, then is it love that holds these couples together or is it the fear of hell? That is not the Biblical pattern. They would do better n that case to divorce and remain single and celebate.

  • So your divorce philosophy here described is part of a Biblical pattern? Do understand what the Bible counsels about divorce? Also, in two thousand years marriage customs have changed. That is why many of us believe that there ought to be continual revelation from God, as implied in Amos 3:7 and throughout all scriptures: the Old and New Testament, Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, etc.
    All have counsel about marriage and divorce, instructed by prophets of God. We would be wise and obedient to heed all God’s words.

  • The types of names you listed are everywhere. My daughter’s elementary class has more unpronounceable names in it than I’ve ever seen up to this point ( about 3/4 the class) and I live in Tennessee.
    The only uniquely Mormon names is if I run into Nephi, Hyrum, Sariah, etc.

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