Words and names in the language of an original text provide a window, sometimes a very small window, but a window nevertheless, into the culture and ideas of the native speakers. This is possible because all names in antiquity had a meaning. In many instances, names that originally started in an older language and which migrating to more recent languages still preserve elements of the original language. For example, the English name Alexander is ultimately derived from the Greek name Αλέξανδρος, which means approximately “defender of men.” The English form preserves the first lexeme, aleks, and the second one, andr, but not the case ending -os. People who know Greek readily recognize these Greek lexemes in the English form.
In addition, even though names are often shortened to form a hypocoristic or pet name, original lexemes may have been maintained. The English hypocoristic name Alex retains remarkable resemblance of the original Greek word αλέξ. Other hypocoristic names also retain recognizable elements of the original name, such as Ed from Edward. However, some hypocoristica show no semblance of the original lexeme(s). A Russian diminutive of Alexander, Sasha, disguises all traces of the original Greek and of its Russian intermediator, Alexandr. Other hypocoristica, such as Dick from Richard, also more or less disguise their origin.
Studies which trace the sounds and phonemes of a more modern language back to an older source language can reveal information about the linguistic source and the culture that originally produced the names. In addition to the example of Alexander in English used above, the English name Esther provides an interesting example. It can be traced ultimately back to the Babylonian name for the goddess of love and war, Ištar. However, the English form of the name is derived undoubtedly from King James Bible Esther, which goes back to the Greek form in the Septuagint Ester or to the Hebrew, Ester, both of which ultimately can be traced to the name of the Babylonian goddess Ištar. Thus, the etymology of English Esther suggests, as inadequate as it is, a short cultural history of the Jewish people that begins with the Babylonian exile.
It is hoped that the Book of Mormon Onomasticon can inform us about the languages used to compose the book. The languages in turn can help inform us about the culture and customs of people who spoke the languages. In this respect, the proper names in the Book of Mormon form a unique and useful tool for the study of the peoples of that book and make possible new insights for understanding the Book of Mormon.
Though the intent of the Onomasticon project was never apologetic, the results of the project could be used by apologists. For example, in 1911 an illinformed Book of Mormon critic stated, “There is not a single discovery or scrap of evidence in support of any of the following names of heads, under which the book has been divided, viz. :– Book I., Nephi; II., Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Omni [sic], Jarom, Omni, Mormon, Mosiah, Zeniff, Alma, Helaman; III., Nephi; IV., Nephi, Mormon, Esther [sic], and Maroni [sic].” The critic who wrote these words can be excused for not being better informed generally than most people in his generation. Irrefutable evidence to the contrary had to wait for new discoveries. For example, the prominent Book of Mormon name Alma, long disparaged as the misappropriated Latin feminine word for soul, was finally vindicated when Yigael Yadin published an ancient Jewish document from the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion containing the name, as he transcribed it, Alma, thus proving the authenticity and antiquity of this Book of Mormon name. This Onomasticon contains this reference and other work that has been done on Book of Mormon names over the past 100 years and more, all of which supports the ancient Near Eastern origin of many Book of Mormon names and words. Now, more than one hundred years after the remarks of the critic quoted above, other would-be critics who ignore the considerable body of evidence that many Book of Mormon names have deep Ancient Near Eastern roots, as evidenced in many of the entrees in the Onomasticon, do so at the peril of their own credibility.
- See HALOT sub אסתר ester, where in addition to the Babylonian derivation from Ištar, the Persian stāreh, “young woman,” is listed.
- The rest of the quote reads, “This altogether remarkable production of an over-imaginative mind bears evidences of the eagerness with which the would-be prophet sought to study his profit, and how he mistook his calling in life, rather than anything in the way of support towards its claims.” M. A. Sbresny, Mormonism: As It Is To-Day. Some Striking Revelations (London: Arthur H. Stockwell, 1911), 24-5.
- Yigael Yadin, Bar Kochba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Last Jewish Revolt against Rome (Jerusalem: Steinmatzky’s Agency, 1971), 177. Hugh W. Nibley, "Review of Bar Kochba by Yigael Yadin", BYU Studies 14/1 (Autumn 1973): 121, was the first Latter-day Saint to publish the discovery of Alma in an authentic, ancient Jewish document. For a full discussion of ALMA see the entry in this Onomasticon.
- It would be unrealistic to expect that a culture that survived for about 1000 years (not to speak of Jaredite culture) would not or did not change. Therefore, it cannot be expected a priori that all Book of Mormon names can be traced back to an Ancient Near East source.