|Lehite PN||1.||Father of No. 2, ca. 300 AD (Mormon 1:5)|
|2.||NEPHITE prophet and general, son of No. 1, ca. 322–386 AD (Words of Mormon 1:1, 9, 11; 3 Nephi 5:12, 20; 26:12 (x2); 28:24; 4 Nephi 1:23; Mormon 1:1 (x2), 5; 2:12; 3:11; 4:23; 5:8; 6:2, 6; 8:1, 13; Ether 15:11; Moroni 7:1, 2; 8:1; 9:Preface)|
|Lehite GN||3.||Land near the city of LEHI-NEPHI, ca. 184 BC (Mosiah 18:4, 5, 7, 16, 30 (x2); Alma 5:3; 21:1; 3 Nephi 5:12)|
|4.||Forest, situated in land of same name (Mosiah 18:30)|
|5.||Waters, situated in land of same name (Mosiah 18:8, 16, 30 (x3); 25:18; 26:15; Alma 5:3)|
Any discussion of the meaning of the name MORMON, must start by dealing with a letter published in the Times and Seasons 4 (15 May 1843): 194, that is attributed to the Prophet Joseph Smith.
But first a probable explanation of why the letter was written in the first place is in order. In E. D. Howe's 1834 Mormonism Unvailed, it is claimed that "the word Mormon, the name given to his [Joseph Smith's] book, is the English termination of the Greek word 'Mormoo,' which we find defined in an old, obsolete Dictionary, to mean 'bug-bear, hob-goblin, raw head, and bloody bones.'" Almost any knowledgeable reader, even in 1834, would have recognized that this definition is not only fabricated but downright silly. Closer in time to the letter in question is this passage from a local Illinois newspaper in 1841: "I will here give you the signification of the word Mormon, and also, book of Mormon, which every person that has read a dictionary of the reformed Egyptian tongue knows to be correct. Mormon—A writer of wicked, absurd, fictitious nonsense, for evil purposes, to make sorcerers. Book of Mormon—A book of gross, fictitious nonsense, wrote by Mormon, for Gazelom's diabolical purposes. Mormons—Anciently in Egypt—a set of black-legs, thieves, robbers, and murderers." This satirical attempt to define Mormon is even more fanciful and absurd than E. D. Howe's. Such doggerel regarding Mormon became the standard fare in the yellow journalism of the times. But no matter how outdated and fetid the nonsense, a reply seems to have been the reason for writing the letter that was published in 1843 in the Times and Seasons.
And now the letter, which was printed over the name of the Prophet: “I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation.—Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good; for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, ‘I am the good shepherd;’ and it will not be beyond the common use of terms, to say that good is among the most important in use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to bad. We say from the Saxon, good; the Dane, god; the Goth, goda; the German, gut; the Dutch, goed; the Latin, bonus; the Greek, kalos; the HEBREW, tob; and the Egyptian, mon. Hence, with the addition of more, or the contraction, mor, we have the word MORMON; which means, literally, more good” (T&S 4 [15 May 1843]: 194).
It is possible that the tone of the letter was at least partially meant to imitate the flippant anti-Mormon literature of the previous ten years. After all, satire is a tempting retort to satire. Although some of the letter might be an application of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), there is a more salient crux that needs to be addressed.
The first issue with this statement is that it is not certain Joseph Smith is responsible for all of the content. The Prophet’s journal entry for 20 May 1844 reads, “in the office heard Bro Phelps read a deffinition of the Word of Mormon – More-Good – corrected and sent to press.” Unfortunately, not enough information is given to determine which parts of the letter published over Joseph’s signature stem from W. W. Phelps and which parts Joseph corrected. What is certain is that Joseph was not the original author, but that Joseph made changes in the text, and that he gave approval to have it published over his name. This was not the first or last time that W. W. Phelps was a ghostwriter for Joseph. B. H. Roberts, when he was compiling the Documentary History of the Church (hereafter HC), also “found evidence that the editor of Times and Seasons, W. W. Phelps, rather than Joseph Smith, wrote this paragraph and that it was ‘based on inaccurate premises and was offensively pedantic.’” He asked for and received permission from the First Presidency to leave the offending paragraph out of the official History of the Church he was producing. In the final version of the HC, B. H. Roberts introduced the letter with a paraphrase of Joseph’s journal entry, rather frankly writing, “Corrected and sent to the Times and Seasons the following.” After leaving out all the words after “the learning and wisdom of this generation,” Roberts summarized the last sentence as “The word Mormon, means literally, more good.”
But there are other issues with this letter. When the letter states that “the Bible in its widest sense, means good ,” the writer was not suggesting that the word “Bible” etymologically means good. Rather, the writer was suggesting that the Bible is good and the reading of it promotes good. This certainly is an acceptable metaphorical meaning of “Bible” that no Christian in the 19th century would deny.
This metaphorical meaning leads to an examination of the phrase, “The word Mormon, means literally, more good.” Just as today, the word literally was used in 19th century English in the sense of “actually,” “really.” In other words, the word “literally” can be understood in the letter to mean “actually” and not necessarily “word-for-word.” Thus, if the Bible, which is true as far as it was transmitted correctly, means “good,” then the Book of Mormon, which was transmitted correctly, must actually mean “more good.” The conclusion can be drawn that “more good” is not a translation of the word “Mormon,” but a metaphorical interpretation in the sense that while the Bible means “good, “Mormon means “more [of the] good,” or possibly “better translated than the Bible.”
What then is the philological explanation of MORMON? Notwithstanding the warning in the letter attributed to Joseph Smith “that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation,” many attempts have been made to provide a sound etymology for MORMON based on secular knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages. The results at best show promise. The following discussion reviews some of the suggestions that have been made.
The first point to be made is that the name, being mentioned first as a GN (Mosiah 18:4) and then later as a PN (3 Nephi 5:12, in which the PN is explicitly derived from the GN), might derive from a descriptive that would be appropriate for both a place and a person. It might be suggested, based on Mosiah 18:4, “a place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king ... having been infested... by wild beasts,” that MORMON could have something to do with “wild beasts.” On the other hand, based on Mosiah 18:5, “there was in Mormon a fountain of pure water,” or based on Mosiah 18:30, “the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they,” MORMON might derive from “fountain/spring” or “pure water” or “beautiful/beauty.”
On a limestone stele of the 19th to 21st EGYPTIAN dynasty in the Museum of Gizeh the name mrmnu appears, accompanied by the title “door keeper.” In a yet to be superseded article, W. Spiegelberg, “Zu den semitischen Eigennamen in ägyptischer Umschrift aus der Zeit des ‘neuen Reiches’ (um 1500–1000),” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 13 (1898):51, treats the name as Semitic in EGYPTIAN transcription although he is not certain that it is Semitic, and he does not provide a meaning. He transcribes it into HEBREW characters with mr/lmn(w). Spiegelberg’s description of the stele unfortunately does not permit its current identification. Despite various difficulties, such as dating to at least 600 years before LEHI and not having an etymology, this name, mrmn, on an EGYPTIAN inscription seems like a direct hit, as Hugh Nibley pointed out years ago. Unfortunately, no immediate etymology suggests itself.
Nevertheless, Nibley has also pointed out that mrm, besides appearing in the EGYPTIAN PN, is attested in HEBREW and Arabic, and means “desirable” or “good.” In this case, MORMON would consist of the root mrm plus the common Semitic ending -ōn (often used on GNs and PNs, such as Kidron and GIDEON). For possible, HEBREW examples, see the biblical PN mirmâh in [1 Chronicles 8:10] (HALOT does not offer an etymology; the Septuagint transcribes is as μαρμα), and the PN merēmȏt (also of questionable etymology; Septuagint μεραμωθ), the name of a priest in [Ezra 10:36] (=[Nehemiah 10:5]), are possibilities (JH). The name also appears as mrmwt on a 6th century BC ostracon from Arad. Note also the PN at Ugarit, ma-ri-ma-na (JH), but the language origin of the name is unknown.
Ben Urrutia has called attention to EGYPTIAN mr mn, “truly beloved,” or “love is established” (BU, “The Name Connection,” New Era, June 1983, p 40), or “strong/firm love” or “love remains steadfast/firm” (RFS). The translation “love is established forever” brings to memory the words of Paul, “charity never faileth” ([1 Corinthians 13:8]) (BU). Interestingly, it is MORMON who uses the same words in a letter written to his son MORONI, adding, “But charity is the pure love of CHRIST, and it endureth forever” ([Moroni 7:46–47]) (JAT).
Deseret Alphabet: 𐐣𐐃𐐡𐐣𐐊𐐤 (mɔːrmʌn), 𐐣𐐄𐐡𐐣𐐊𐐤 (moʊrmʌn)
- E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 21, emphasis in original.
- “Communications,” Warsaw Signal, August 11, 1841 (anonymous letter to the editor).
- My thanks and appreciation to Andrew Hedges, Church History Library, for calling my attention to this passage. I have quoted the passage from Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), p. 378, entry for 20 May 1843.
- For W. W. Phelps as a ghost writer for Joseph Smith, see Samuel Brown, “The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps,” Journal of Mormon History, 34/1 (Winter 2008):26-62. See pages 42-42 where Brown discusses this Times and Seasons passage. See also page 54. Another piece ghostwritten by W.W. Phelps is discussed by Michael Hicks in “Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, and the Poetic Paraphrase of ‘The Vision’,” Journal of Mormon History, 20/2 (Fall 1994):63-84.
- Truman Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 291-292. Madsen cites no source for his information.
- HC, V:400.
- One example will suffice here. “They then commenced to whip me with large gads which they had for the purpose, and literally mangled me from my shoulders to my knees” (HC 4:181). Here, “literally” means flesh wounds, not that his whole upper body was mangled.
- This statement may refer to the fact that the Restoration, including the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon, was not done by any secular, academic, or scholarly means of our enlightened age. Perhaps this sentence may be the only part of the letter for which Joseph Smith was responsible.
- ABM, 500, footnote 30 to Chap. 22. Nibley states that “the common EGYPTIAN Mr- means ‘intention, wish, desire.’”
- ABM, 500, footnote 30 to chapter 22.
- Arad ostracon # 50. See Shmuel Ahituv, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. Anson F. Rainey (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), p. 149. On page 484 Ahitub explains this PN as “Blessed by the god Mawt, death.”
- The name appears in the appendix “Liste ungedeuteter oder ihrer sprachlichen Herkunft nach unsicherer Namen,” in Frauke Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit, Studia Pohl 1 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1967), p. 304.