Careful readers of the King James Bible apocrypha will have noticed in 1 Esdras 5:21 the close match of the PN NEPHI with the patronymic Nephis (Greek Νιφις), one of the names of the Jewish families who returned from the Babylonian captivity. Also, in the KJV version of 2 Maccabees 1:36 is Nephi (Greek νεφθαι), an alternate name for the cleansing agent naphtha, (Greek νεφθαρ). Neither of these Greek words seems a likely source for the PN NEPHI.
The current LDS "Pronouncing Guide" for Book of Mormon words, and the Deseret Alphabet spelling of the PN NEPHI, 𐐤𐐀𐐙𐐌, (IPA: niːfaɪ), and 𐐤𐐁𐐙𐐌, (IPA: neɪfaɪ), suggest that the search for an etymology should focus on nēʹfī and not nēpʹhī. Most of the suggestions below are based on that assumption.
The most likely derivation of the PN NEPHI is ancient EGYPTIAN nfr "good, beautiful." That the r is nowhere evident in the Book of Mormon is not an issue because the final r in late EGYPTIAN can elide. For example, knpi, "(My) ka is good" (from Egyptian kз-npy), appears in North-West Semitic documents. Additionally, the PN NEPHI is attested at the time of LEHI. Thus, if NEPHI means "The Good" the name could be metonymic based on Nephi's self-declaration that he was "born of goodly parents" (1 Nephi 1:1). Additionally, the likely Egyptian name npsy, "Isis is good," occurs on a West Semitic stamp seal.
In Semitic languages, two directions exist for seeking the etymology of this important Book of Mormon name, nph/ḥ or nv̄ p or n aleph p. Historical and current LDS pronunciation of the name would favor the latter, reading the ph as one phoneme [f], rather than as two, [p] and [h/ḥ]. However, I am unaware of any root in Semitic corresponding with nv̄/ʿp. Both npḥ, “to breathe, blow” (JAT, JH), and nph, “to discard, banish, reject” (JH) exist in West Semitic, though the latter is not attested in North-west Semitic (JH). Nap_pnu means “anblasen, entzünden; aufgehen” and appears in the form niphu “Aufleuchten, Entbrennen” and refers metaphorically to sun up and star up. It occurs in the feminine names i-na-ni-ip-pni-ša-al-si-iš and i-na-nippni(SAR)-ša-al-si-iš (Stamm, ANG, 200). The form may be related to the biblical Zimri/Omri and Book of Mormon LEHI/LIMHI, etc. (PN). The root also occurs in the Akkadian term nappahu "smith".
Nibley wrote that "nfy was the name of an Egyptian captain," implying a PN rather than a word meaning "captain"; the term nfy is indeed attested as an Egyptian name in Nephi's own time,  despite claims to the contrary. This derivation would come from ancient Egyptian nfw (in late Egyptian nfy), "captain, skipper, chief of sailors" (Coptic ne(e)f, neeb), from the meaning "breathe, blow at" (RFS, JH, JAT). It would also appear that npy comprises part of the name šmynpy (שמינפי, Šemenufe) found in Aramaic documents from Egypt. We must also note that there might be a play on words with this proposal, using the Hebrew root nûp "to shake," as in Isaiah 10:15,32, 11:15, 19:16 (hēnîp, tĕnûpâ, "wave-offering," mēnîp; = 2 Nephi 20:15,32, 21:15, Exodus 29:26), applied to 1 Nephi 2:14, 17:45,54-55, 2 Nephi 1:13,23,4:31, 8:25, 9:44-45.
See also Egyptian nfˁ=i, "I am driven away, removed" (passive) (EHA). If correct, the name could be metonymic, in view of NEPHI's forced departure from his homeland (JAT). However, this is unlikely because first of all, it would have to be a dependent clause and would not be nominalized. Second, the so-called passive sdm=f is a circumstantial past passive meaning in this case "since I had been driven away."
Nibley pointed to a variety of possible Arabic sources. Ancient Safaitic and Minaean Nfy (perhaps Arabic nafaiy "exile") are good examples. Nibley also suggested the PN 'nfy' on at least 10 Nabatean inscriptions. In one case, nfy is the father of one lmy, where the y is defective and may, according to Jaussen, have been n, hence Laman (if it is really y, cf. Book of Mormon Lamah - JAT), while in another h-nfy appears with the name mrm-lw, for which cf. Mormon.
An etymology from within the Semitic languages seems at present less likely than from Egyptian. Assuming again that nēʹfī is correct and not nēpʹhī, the Semitic roots nʾp, nʿp, npv (npā, npū, npī, npē) or nvp (nāp, nūp, nīp, nēp) provide a beginning point. However, none of these options in Hebrew provide anything close to a useful etymology. Even nāpâ, "yoke," is not helpful, except perhaps as the hypocoristicon nāpî, "my yoke."
The only North-West Semitic language that provides a useful etymology is Ugaritic, with the root npy, which means "drive away, expel." This is likely related to the Ugaritic sacrificial term np, npy "atonement, expurgation, purification, expiration." This might even make an interesting play on words, with Lehi and his family being driven away from Jerusalem. But that meaning would require the niphal form of the verb, not the qal, and NEPHI does not fit the form of a niphal finite verb. However, a niphal active participle form, *nippay, could account for NEPHI and could mean, "driven away/expelled," a possible metonymic explanation.
Ignoring the accepted pronunciation of NEPHI would allow a search in the Semitic languages for nph, npḥ and npḫ. In Hebrew, the first of these, nph, wouild be etymologically the same as Ugaritic npy discussed above, but is not attested in Hebrew. The second, npḥ is the Hebrew root for "blow, breathe; set aflame; gasp, pant." Because the phonemes /ḫ/ and /ḥ/ are both written with ḥ (ח) in Hebrew. npḫ would be represented in Hebrew with npḥ. In fact, Hebrew npḥ (the reflex of common Semitic npḫ) does not provide additional etymological alternatives.
However, Akkadian names constructed with the cognate of Hebrew npḥ are helpful. The Akkadian cognate napāḫu can mean "arise, to become visible," and appears in the PN Na-pa-aḫ-dŠamaš-ri-iš, "the rising of dŠamaš [the sun] is celebrated" (Stamm, ANG 186). The noun form nipḫu, "sun-disk," also appears in Akkadian feminine names, i-na-ni-ip-i-ša-al-si-iš and i-na-nip~i(SAR)-ša-al-si-iš (Stamm, ANG 200). This noun form may be related to the form of the biblical PNs, Zimri, Omri, Imri and Book of Mormon Lehi/Limhi. Given this information, it is possible that NEPHI could be a hypocoristicon meaning "The rising [of X is celebrated]," though an Akkadian etymology for a Book of Mormon name should take backstage to Hebrew or Egyptian.
Alex Morgan has suggested in a private communication (postmarked 24 May 2001) that Nehemiah 7:52: Nephishesim and Ezra 2:50 Nephusim may have something to do with NEPHI. Both refer to descendants of the prisoners-of-war from the Ishmaelite tribe" npyš.
Thelona D. Stevens suggested that NEPHI was related to the Nahua arguing that "the Nahuas had lost all the labial sounds except p and u." and therefore "the word 'Nahua' may, therefore, as far as the pronunciation indicates, be considered identical with 'NEPHI.' Since there is a phoneme p in Nahuatl, however, there is no reason that NEPHI would need to be represented as "Nahua" rather than "NEPHI."
Implausible is the suggestion to derive Nephi from the Hebrew word for prophet, nābīʾ The Hebrew bet in nābīʾ, despite spirantization, cannot be turned into the /f/ of Nephi. Even isolating the first two syllables of the Masoretic pronunciation of the plural nābīʾ nebhi (not nevi) would not produce the /f/ of NEPHI.
Deseret Alphabet: 𐐤𐐀𐐙𐐌 (niːfaɪ), 𐐤𐐁𐐙𐐌 (neɪfaɪ)
- John Gee, "A Note on the Name Nephi," JBMS 1/1 (1992): 189-191; John Gee, “Four Suggestions on the Origin of the Name Nephi,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch, and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999), 1-5.
- William F. Edgerton, "Stress, Vowel Quality, and Syllable Division in Egyptian," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 6/1 (1947): 10-17.
- Yoshiyuki Muchiki, Egyptian Proper Names and Loanwords in North-West Semitic (Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999), 26. In the same work see npr (28); unpr, “(The) good exists;” npnʾ, “Good one belonging to Thebes” (96); nprʾyt, “The beautiful one is come” (97); tnupy, “She who belongs to the good one” (151); and see p. 293.
- Ranke, Die ägyptischen Personennamen 1:194.
- See Matt Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi's Name,” FARMS’ Insights, 21/11 (2001), online at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/insights/?vol=22&num=11&id=301 .
- Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, ed. Nahman Avigad, revised and completed by Benjamin Sass (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1997), 543
- Nibley, LID, 27; see also ABM, 290.
- Compare the 7th cent. B.C. nomarch of Athribis, BЗk-n-nfy “Servant-of-the-Captain” (L. Habachi, MDAIK 15:69-77, cited by R. F. Smith at JBMS 5/2 :110 n. 65), whose name appears in syllabic cuneiform transliteration as IBu-uk-ku-na-an-ni-iʼ-pi (Rykle Borger, Babylonisch-Assyrische Lesestücke, 2nd ed., I:90 [Rome: PBI, 1979], line 102).
- Despite Ranke,Die ägyptischen Personennamen 1:193.
- Robert F. Smith “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” 1973 Conference on the Language of the Mormons, May 31, 1973 (Provo: BYU Language Research Center, 1973), 65, online at https://www.scribd.com/document/363522963/SOME-NEOLOGISMS-FROM-THE-MORMON-CANON; Ranke, Die ägyptischen Personennamen 1:194
- Bezalel Porten and Jerome A. Lund, Aramaic Documents from Egypt: A Key-Word-in Context Concordance (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 415a.
- R. Faulkner, Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, 131.
- Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Lesson 22 n. 27 = Collected Works VI:290 n. 28.
- R. F. Smith in JBMS 5/2:147 n. 268, citing E. Littmann, Safaitic Inscriptions, 1025.
- Nibley, ABM, 239 and esp. fn. 28 (in the reprint by FARMS; fn. 27 in the 1964 Deseret edition) to Chap. 22.
- Analytic Ugaritic Bibliography 1972-1988, ed. Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1996), 777.
- G. del Olmo Lete, Canaanite Religion according to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit', 2nd ed. (Ugarit-Verlag, 2014), 16-17,123; KTU 1.40:1,19,36.
- See |CAD N.
- See |CAD N.
- Thelona D. Stevens, “Book of Mormon Names in Indian Languages,” Saints' Herald 115 (1 July 1968): 456.
- Thelma D. Sullivan and Neville Stiles, Compendium of Nahuatli Grammar (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 6.
- This appears to be what Reynolds, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, I:3, and IV:275, has suggested as the etymology of NEPHI.