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Utah Baby Names: What’s So Funny?

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Guest blogger Sachiko, an LDS church member and mother of going-on-seven children, enlightens us on the ins and outs of the strange baby naming practices of the state of Utah.

Utah Baby Names: It’s a naming culture people love to hate, or at least love to laugh at.

If you’re familiar with Utah baby naming, you know what I’m talking about.

If you aren’t, then here’s a link to the Utah Baby Namer.  I recommend you click on “The Cream of the Crop.”  I know you’re busy. You only need to read a few.

No, really. Go on. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Do you see what some of the laughing is about?

Some of the subsets of Utah names, and what makes them seem so ridiculous to outsiders:

Scriptural Names — This one’s a no-brainer. Utah culture is not always the same as, but is connected to, LDS church history.

Like other religiously informed baby namers, Utah and LDS people view books of Holy Writ as prime baby naming material.

Unlike other religiously informed baby namers, Utah and LDS people have scriptures other religions don’t have, most notably the Book of Mormon. Which means names you probably haven’t heard before, unless you’re familiar with Semetic and Egyptian names from the ancient world such as Nephi, Moroni, Mahonri, or Moriancumr.

Is Everybody Here Named Smith, Kimball or Young? Most of the early converts to the LDS church were from the British Isles. Add that to a few decades of polygamy, and you end up with huge amounts of descendents with the same English last name.

This can help explain why Utah baby namers sometimes choose wildly divergent names: to differentiate themselves from all the siblings, cousins, neighbors and strangers with the same last name. This is also where Utahns get historical names like Brigham, Parley and Heber.

The Matronymic. This is what you call it when children are given part or all of their mother’s name, usually her maiden name. In the intermountain LDS culture, usually the mother gives her maiden name to a son—sometimes all the sons—as a middle name. Here’s an historical example:

Hyrum Smith + Mary Fielding = Joseph Fielding Smith

I like the matronymic because of how it symbolizes respect for women and mothers in historical Utah. The surname carries the male line, but with a matronymic, the female line retains status and remains easy to trace. This is also a bonus to geneologists, who are thick on the ground in Utah.

Several years ago, The Onion skewered Utah use of scriptural names, similar surnames and matronymics in this mock-article. (You’re welcome.)

No Middle Name For Girls Parents give daughters a first name but no middle name, with the expectation that they’ll take their maiden name as a middle name when they marry.

This is the trend that I find hardest to accept, because I am a crazy-obsessive baby name collector and the idea of using only one name per baby, when I could use two or three, seems so limiting. Not to mention my gut reaction of “Not fair! The boys got a middle name!”

But wait, it’s okay! It’s the complement of the matronymic. While the boys are getting their mother’s maiden name as their middle name, and carrying that maiden name into recorded perpetuity, the girls take their father’s surname with them, possibly to then hand down to their sons as a matronymic.

Do you see the beauty of this practice? Names combine and entwine across generations and genders, knitting father to daughter, mother to son. Ideally, everybody’s connected and nobody’s forgotten.

This concept of name-knitting taken to its logical conclusion leads us to probably the most idiosyncratic feature of Utah baby naming, composite naming.

LaName for ReBaby Look through a list of Utah baby names and you will likely notice a lot of what BYU Professor Don Norton calls “composite names”.
To make a composite name, first the mommy’s name and the daddy’s name love each other very much and decide to make a new name, and they combine in a special way, like so:

Vern (father) + Sharlene (mother) = Verlene
Udell (father) + Rhonda (mother) = Rondelle

Because It Sounds Good, That’s Why Other times, the composite name makes use of name prefixes like Ra-, Re-, La- and Je-. Common suffixes include –ell, -yn, -erle and –ee.

It’s Utah Baby Name Helper: Take the phoneme of your choice, add a prefix and suffix, and you’ve got yourself a baby name straight from Dixie, Deseret.

Many classic Utah baby names are made this way: LaRae, LaVell, LeGrande, DeVere, Maradee. And so on.

What the Heck? Names A quick perusal of the Clark’s “Cream of the Crop” gives names like Djeryd (a kree8tiff Jared?), Nymphus, Tiarrhea and Revo Cram.

I’m offering this one for the laffs, but honestly, I think this category of name happens everywhere. They’re appalling, but they’re not appalling in a specifically Utahn way.

Not as backwards as you might think Consider some of today’s hot naming trends, such as euphonious syllable collections (McKenna, Kaylee ), surname names (Easton, Jacoby), spiritual names (Zion, Haven). Utah’s scriptural names and matronymics fit right in. Some quibble about the composite naming, but then “euphonious” is in the ear of the beholder.

And as far as the latest in unique names, Utah’s been-there-done-that for decades now. Go back to that list by the Clarks and maybe you’ll notice what I did: that mixed into verboten baby name scrap heap were gems like Ireland, London, Tennyson, Candle, Damascus, and Sunrise.

Unusual? Yes. But appalling and deserving of scorn? No. Actually, I think I’ve seen a few of these atop many “cool baby name” lists. If that’s not naming vindication, what is?

Sachiko has named six children — William Takashi, Reilly Sentaro, Bronwen Fumie, Hilani Hisamarie, Sakura LouJean and Musashi Dustin — and is eagerly waiting to name her seventh. She’s a Mormon homeschooler and lives in Washington state with her husband, children, two dogs and six cats. Her blog is Sachiko Says.

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