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The battle strains across the phrase ‘Mormon’

(RNS) — My favorite podcast is a phrase nerd’s paradise.

It’s mainly one man studying his lecture notes for an hour or extra. No banter, no co-host, no full of life company to interview. Simply this one man explaining the sluggish and infrequently shocking evolution of the English language from its antecedents a number of thousand years in the past to the current.

I’m greater than 100 episodes in and we’re nonetheless caught within the Center Ages.

The brilliance of “The History of English Podcast” is precisely this stage of element. There are complete episodes dedicated to how our alphabet fastened on 26 letters when there have been others within the working, why our medical phrases are principally from Greek and our diplomatic language largely from French, and the way urbanization within the 14th century modified the English financial system and regularly gave rise to occupational surnames like Miller, Baker and Chandler.

However in additional than 100 hours of listening, right here’s a narrative I’ve by no means heard on the podcast: how leaders of a tiny faith that was about 0.2% of the world’s inhabitants issued a decree that members of their religion would ever after be referred to as one thing else, and anticipated the opposite 99.8% of the world to instantly and drastically alter the language to accommodate that decree.

It’s been simply over three years since Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began insisting that the world purge the word “Mormon” from its lexicon. In brief order, the church overhauled its personal social media accounts, modified the identify of the historic Mormon Tabernacle Choir to “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Sq.,” scrubbed the word “Mormon” from more than a thousand official books and products and adjusted LDS Enterprise School to Ensign School.

But most outsiders proceed to make use of “Mormon.” Why? As a result of it’s a single, quick, handy phrase that capabilities equally nicely as both a noun (“I’m a Mormon”) or an adjective (“scrumptious Mormon funeral potatoes”). You continue to see it within the headlines of all main information media shops in america. Listed below are latest headlines from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

A February 2020 Wall Avenue Journal headline

A "Washington Post" headline from April 2021.

A Washington Submit headline from April 2021

A "New York Times" headline from September 2021.

A New York Occasions headline from September 2021

Journalists aren’t doing this to be disrespectful or irresponsible, although that’s the impression given in Elder Neil Andersen’s October General Conference talk, “The Name of the Church Is Not Negotiable.” 

“There might be a number of who, hoping to detract from or diminish the seriousness of our mission, will proceed to name us ‘Mormons’ or ‘the Mormon Church.’ Civilly, we once more ask the fair-minded of the media to honor our want to be referred to as by our identify of almost 200 years.”

This assertion operates from the belief that something lower than rapid and full compliance with the church’s unprecedented 180-degree turnaround is an intentional effort to sabotage the church’s mission.

It isn’t. In truth, it has little to do with the church and all the pieces to do with our readers, viewers and listeners. It’s not the media’s job to be a company PR agency for anybody group. It’s our job to mediate: to serve each the topics we cowl and the shoppers who need to learn about them. We’re at all times mediating between the establishments we write about and the audiences we serve. And since language doesn’t change in a single day, because the podcast mentioned above makes clear, these audiences nonetheless need data introduced with the terminology they know. Which is “Mormon.”

Over the past three years I’ve been checking Google Developments to see if there was a lower in searches for “Mormon.” Search engine historical past will not be an ideal measure of language utilization, nevertheless it’s helpful. And sure, we now have seen a discount in searches utilizing the phrase “Mormon” in america over the past 5 years.

US Google searches for "Mormon," 2016 to Spring 2021.

U.S. Google searches for “Mormon,” 2016 to spring 2021

What we see from this graph is that, with a number of exceptions when there have been unsettling tales within the information concerning the church and its members, “Mormon” seems to be on a downward slope.

Nonetheless, this isn’t as a result of “Latter-day Saint” is on the rise. There’s been no corresponding uptick of curiosity in “Latter-day Saint” — as an alternative, there’s been an obvious general lower in searches for something to do with the church or its members.

The search terms "Mormon" and "Latter-day Saint" compared for a five-year period through the Spring of 2021.

The search phrases “Mormon” and “Latter-day Saint” in contrast for a five-year interval via the spring of 2021

This common indifference is true of different geographical areas and a number of search phrases, together with the much-lauded full identify of the church. Nonetheless, there’s one exception: in Utah. Now-preferred phrases like “the restored church of Jesus Christ” do have traction in that one location.

That ought to inform us one thing. Church members, who’re nonetheless the bulk in Utah, are on board with this variation (and, judging from the hate mail I obtain, fairly exercised about getting the media to fall in line). And that’s the place cultural change can start — in small and native methods. Time will inform whether or not it would catch on. The media will comply with the lead of readers, viewers and listeners in addition to the modified route of the church.

Part of the Church's heavy promotion of its "Meet the Mormons" documentary in the Fall of 2014.

A part of the church’s heavy promotion of its “Meet the Mormons” documentary within the fall of 2014

Rapid change is unlikely to occur within the press, particularly because the church itself was so not too long ago pushing members of the media to advertise its “I’m a Mormon” marketing campaign and its “Meet the Mormons” movie. (Not solely does language not cease on a dime, it particularly doesn’t change rapidly when the very group that was closely and visibly selling its members as Mormons in 2014 was by 2018 calling the utilization of that time period a victory for Devil. That’s fairly whiplash-inducing.)

I’ve carried out adjustments in my very own utilization since 2018. I attempt to consult with “Latter-day Saints” at church and when chatting with fellow members, utilizing the language they’re most snug with. I additionally embody increasingly more cases of “Latter-day Saint” in the principle textual content of my columns and within the ebook I’m writing, alternating that time period with the extra searchable and headline-friendly  “Mormon.”

That compromise actually gained’t appease the hard-liners. In truth, if the church’s efforts to expunge “Mormon” from our collective vocabulary have been profitable in any method, it’s this: driving a big wedge amongst our folks. “Mormon” has turn out to be a shibboleth, a direct shorthand for Latter-day Saints to dimension up each other’s obedience and orthodoxy.

There’s a cautionary story about shibboleths in Judges 12 within the Bible. Mainly, the story is that after the Gileadites defeat their rival Ephraimites in battle, the surviving Ephraimites try to flee by the use of crossing the Jordan River to security.

The victorious Gileadites aren’t having it. They need to be sure that they search out each single escaped Ephraimite, in order that they arrange a checkpoint on the river, which they now management. The password is “Shibboleth,” a phrase they pronounce otherwise than the Ephraimites, who can’t fairly muster the “sh” consonant originally. Success! The litmus check works like a allure, enabling them to determine and slaughter each fleeing Ephraimite. This story has given us the phrase “shibboleth” to consult with language that divides one group from one other.

One nuance we miss right now is that the Gileadites and the Ephraimites are from the identical tribe of Israel. They’re cousins, basically. This isn’t a narrative about Israelites attacking foreigners however of them butchering their very own folks. This name is coming from inside the home.

Latter-day Saints who zealously police the boundaries of different folks’s terminology will not be as murderous because the Gileadites, however the divisive and corrosive impact is far the identical. Battle strains are drawn in opposition to fellow members of the church in addition to (understandably bewildered) outsiders who haven’t but erased the phrase “Mormon” from their vocabularies. After we do that, it’s laborious to see how we’re manifesting what is meant to be the purpose of all this variation, which is getting folks to affiliate us with the “Jesus Christ” that’s within the full identify of the church.

A extra useful method can be to consider language in the best way that Elder Andersen discusses the restoration of the church close to the start of his speak. He quoted President Nelson in stating that the restoration is a course of, not an occasion. Language, too, is a course of and never an occasion. Change takes time, and whether or not it’s profitable is expounded as to if it fills an natural want.

We’ll watch and see.


Associated:

A year later, how successful is the war on the word ‘Mormon’? (2019)

I’m a Mormon! But I’m not supposed to call myself that anymore (2018)

The name ‘Mormon’: Why all the fuss, and why now? (2018)


This column is customized from the April 2021 conference presentation “Shibboleths: Identity and Boundary Maintenance in Mormonism,” Claremont Graduate College, Claremont, California. Along with my paper, there have been papers from 5 different students discussing the identify change of the church. All are available for free viewing.

 

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