What Price, Distinction?

Spence and Desda

The other day I came across a wedding invitation, extended in 1992, for a woman named Desda Hepple and a man named Spencer Harris, who were to be married in the Mormons’ Salt Lake temple. This document made me think once again about the unusual names that so many Utah Mormons are given. When I lived in Utah from 1983 to 1985, I kept a list of those that were indigenous to the place. Only there had I heard of men with given names such as DeLay, DeVar, Devear, Devere, DeVerl, DeVon, Dallin, Demar, Denley, La Del, La Grande, Le Moyne, La Val, Lyman, Orrin, Thales, Thayne, and Verdel. I had the impression there was an infinitude of others, but no one could tell me anything about the phenomenon. For those who had lived all their lives in Utah, it didn’t even seem remarkable.

I knew there was a Le Mars, Iowa, which lies northeast of Sioux City, and thought that was strange enough. The town’s name is believed to be an acronym fashioned from the first initials of the ladies who were on the naming committee: Lucy, Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, Rebecca, and Sarah. Le Grand, another Iowa town, coincidentally presents a variation on the spelling of a Utah boy’s name.

Many of the male names on my list were recorded from newspaper articles or other secondhand sources, but I actually have a friend named Lyman. His name might not even be that unique: more of a nineteenth century name that continued to flourish in some parts of the West.    

But only in Utah had I heard of women named Deloy, Doneva, Jalene, Lanae, La Rae, La Ree, La Rue, Lei Momi, and Nevon. We lived next-door to La Priel Bates, a generous and dignified widow. My mother-in-law pronounced the name without giving any value to the “e,” so that she said “La Pril.” As for Lei Momi, in a search, it comes up as some sort of hula name.    

Incidentally, there happens to be an Iowa town called Lamoni, which is pronounced La-MOAN-eye. One day a group of Mormons should do a tour of Iowa from Le Mars to Lamoni. There might be a harmonic convergence.    

I’d never been able to account for the origins of names like these until finding a newspaper column on the matter. The writer had isolated four major naming practices:    

  1. Combination of parents’ or grandparents’ names (LaWynn from Louise and Winfield; Sherald from Shelley and Gerald)
  2. Surnames as given names (Thatcher, Tanner, Kimball, Cannon, etc.), a general American practice for middle names, but not so common as the main name
  3. Combination names—any one of several prefixes plus any one of a number of suffixes
  4. Concocted names (Strelsa, Ryatt, Nello). We might add to this list a common American (and especially Mormon) practice of spelling traditional names in unusual ways (Loid, Danial, Kady, Kellee, and on and on).

The article referred me to the Utah Baby Namer. It’s on a site maintained by Wes Clark, whom I tracked down. He told me the UBN really is his wife Cari’s thing. When I spoke to her, she explained, “I love language and words. Fun for me is editing something or proofreading something.” She’s “traditional” and “a stickler for rules.” What prompted her to put together the catalog? During their long years at BYU—both are natives of southern California—they noticed “all those funny names.” Cari had one roommate named Alene, and another, from New Mexico, named M’Lou, as in “Skip to,” I guess. Still, she didn’t think that much of it until moving to the Washington, D.C., area. On a Giant grocery store TV commercial, she saw a woman named Odonna Matthews and figured out she was Mormon. One thing led to another, and lists of boys’ and girls’ names began to grow. Before long, people were approaching to say, “Hey, my name is Tasel. I think it belongs on your list. My name is Todene.”    

Cari isn’t sold on the value of differentiating a kid to such an extreme degree within the greater context of mainstream American life. “There’s a certain naiveté in the Mormon culture that does contribute to some of that stuff,” she said. Recent findings are what she called “new names for the new millennium.” Such names, made up from whole cloth, are Bailyn, Braxton, Braylor, and Jathen for boys, Aaric and ChaseKa (a combo of Chase and Kami) for girls. Indeed, this places Utah “on the vanguard of naming trends,” but it’s impossible for Cari to view this as a good thing. “It sounds like the parents were ignorant.” The nomenclatural exoticism “is not realistic in today’s world,” she said. “We’re doing business on a global basis. My point is that parents are saddling their children with a lifelong burden of spelling and explaining and pronouncing that name. I think it’s ultimately a mistake. If you’ve got a daughter who turns out to be a federal judge…” Here, I wasn’t able to keep up in my note-taking, but Cari dropped in an unlikely name for a federal judge, like Fayona, the name of a real girl from Loa, Utah.    

My argument—a bit of cultural differentiation doesn’t hurt—was dismissed. She laid out her own experience, growing up Cari Bilyeu in the L.A. suburb of Lomita. Her sister was Dona, which wasn’t a Spanish honorific but rather was missing the second “n.” Cari was often frustrated by the mispronunciations she encountered and by “having a diminutive name.” Taking the married name of Clark was a relief for her. Now she finds herself asking, “Why borrow trouble? You can always find common foreign names like Veronique.”    

She referred me to the Mormon satire blog Seriously, So Blessed! The writer’s profile confides, “In March we had the hottest twins ever, named very unique: Alivyiah TreCole and Tridger Kaegrin. Love you guys!!”    

But truth is stranger than fiction, and there seems to be a consensus that the girl’s name Latrina is still the all-time winner in the pot of Utah baby names.

4 thoughts on “What Price, Distinction?

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Has me wondering whether the Jackson family found a Mormon baby naming book backstage somewhere. LaToya, etc.
    I could never figure out my mother’s name, Elberna. I have her birth certificate from 1903, Williston, OH, farm country. There are actually two. The first is Alberna Lizzie, the second Elberna Louise.
    I’ve always wondered about the spelling evolutions and their purpose. I had a roommate once named Barbarra. Weird.

  2. Fascinating and funny, thanks Ronald! I used to work in the medical records dept. at U of M. I came across many names that made me wonder what the parents were thinking. Can you imagine going through life named Candy Apple? Maybe Alivyiah doesn’t seem so bad.

  3. Don’s grandma wasn’t Mormon, but her name was Maxalene and her sister was Hollis. The family story was that when they had Hollis, they’d wanted a boy. No one ever could explain Maxalene. She went by Mary all her life.

    I just had a customer named Kourtnie. I can see the “Kourtnie for District Judge” signs now.

  4. This was a surprise to find. Amazing what is out on the web.
    With regard to your article-it was interesting-and true that I didn’t realize that many of those names were anomalies from Utah.
    My father did not grow up Mormon nor did he grow up in Utah. In fact he moved to Utah from Southern California by way of Chicago. It was his ‘job’ to name the kids-all of my siblings have pretty normal names. We were all named with great thought and purpose. I wish I knew the thought process in naming me. But I don’t think I fit into the Mormon from Utah anomaly.
    Take care and please keep informing us of interesting facts.

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