The most likely derivation of the name is EGYPTIAN nfr "good, beautiful." (JG) The final r in EGYPTIAN had dropped out of pronunciation about a thousand years earlier, and it is attested as a personal name at the time of LEHI.
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".
An equally or even more promising derivation would come from EGYPTIAN nfw (later nfy), “captain, skipper, chief of sailors” (Coptic ne(e)f, neeb), from meaning “breathe, blow at” (RFS, JH, JAT). Nibley wrote that “Nfy was the name of an EGYPTIAN captain,” implying a PN rather than a word meaning “captain” (LID, 27; see also ABM, 234); the term nfy is attested as an EGYPTIAN name but not after the New Kingdom. See also EGYPTIAN nfʿ=i, “I am driven away” (passive sdm=f) (EHA). If correct, the name could be metonymic, in view of NEPHI’s forced departure from his homeland (JAT). This is unlikely because the so-called passive sdm=f is a circumstantial past passive meaning in this case "since I had been driven away." It would have to be a dependent clause and is not nominalized.
Nibley notes 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 hnfy appears with the name mrmlw, for which cf. MORMON (ABM, 239 and esp. fn. 28 [in the reprint by FARMS; fn. 27 in the 1964 Deseret edition] to Chap. 22).
Implausible is the suggestion to derive NEPHI from the HEBREW word for prophet, nābīʾ. Such a derivation (Reynolds, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, I, p. 3 and IV, p. 275) is based on the erroneous reading “nevi” from “nebhi,” which is the masoretic pronunciation of the first two syllables of the plural “prophets.” But we do not know if masoretic pronunciation held in LEHI’s day; and even if the pronunciation were certain for LEHI’s day, part of the plural form cannot be used to explain a word that looks singular. The fact that the niphal form may mean “speak under divine influence” is irrelevant. In other words, the HEBREW “bet” in nābīʾ, despite spirantization, cannot be turned into the [f] of NEPHI.
Some would like to see the NEPHI in 2 Macc. 1:36 of the KJV (Greek neai, an alternate name for naphtha, the Aramaic word for petroleum, which is usually rendered by Greek near) as the most likely origin of Book of Mormon NEPHI (JH). In view of the fact that the Greek does not read NEPHI, neither would the Aramaic, Joseph Smith would have to have taken the name from his KJV Bible which, it is now known, contained the Apocrypha (JAT). But it seems unlikely that Joseph Smith would have rendered a PN from the Plates with an erroneous KJV reading of a Greek noun of an Aramaic/HEBREW word for petroleum. Confer also nea, near in 1 Esdr. 5:2. (RFS; *CANNOT FIND IN 1 ESDR. 5:2!!!!) (RFS).
Thelona 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."
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 “Nachkommen v. Kriegsgefangen aus d. ismaelitishcen Stamm npyš,” (HALOT, pwsym) a son of ISHMAEL.
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.
- Ranke, Die ägyptischen Personennamen 1:194.
- Robert F. Smith proposes that EGYPTIAN nfw is cognate with West Semitic npḥ but this is doubted by JG as Semitic ḥ does not become w in EGYPTIAN.
- Ranke, Die ägyptischen Personennamen 1:193
- 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.