What's In a (Utah) Name?

by Cari Bilyeu Clark

When my husband and I moved from Utah to the Washington, D.C. area seventeen years ago, we knew nothing of the inadvertent legacy we carried from our four years in Utah. Shortly after we arrived in our new home, we saw a television commercial for a local grocery store chain. The spokeswoman's name was the unusual "Odonna." "She's gotta be from Utah," I said to my husband. "That's a Utah name if I ever heard one."

We eventually learned that Odonna was, indeed, Utah born and bred.

It dawned on us that many names we'd heard during our college careers, and found only mildly remarkable, were indeed unique to the Utah Mormon culture. Thus began our quest to define what makes some names singularly Utahn, and what sets them apart from ethnic names with roots in other cultures, such as Juanita or Shoshanna; or African-American names such as Tawanda and Shaquille; or the newly common, soap-operaesque handles such as Skylar, Tiffany, Raven, and Adrienne. There's a difference, and it's not just the obviously Mormon scriptural names like Mahonri or Nephi or Moroni. Often identifying a Utah name is a gut feeling akin to Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: you know it when you see it.

The quintessential Utah name often has a French-sounding prefix such as Le-, La-, Ne-, or Va-. Often names appear to have genesis in the combined names of the parents--Veradeane or GlenDora, for example. Related is the practice of feminizing the father's name--as in Vonda (dad is Vaughan) or Danetta. Others, such as Snell or Houser, appear to be surnames called into service as first names.

Related is the curious tendency, more common in Utah than elsewhere, for men (women do not seem to do this) to use the first initial, then the full middle name as the given name, such as L. Flake Rogers, who ran for office in Utah County when we lived there. (Come on, you've noticed this habit among the general authorities of the LDS church!) Besides puzzling over why someone would want to be known as "Flake," it makes one wonder just what the "L" stands for.

So my husband and I entertained ourselves by collecting the often bizarre names we found in Utah publications (including the obituaries, which indicates that this is not a recent fad) and of Utah natives we met. We compiled a list and shared it with our friends, who often as not had a few more to add. We really hit a bonanza when one woman shared our observations with her mother, who worked at a Utah bank and had access to lots of names. She started her own list and began sending the names to us. (My personal favorite, LaNondus, came from this source.) Another friend told us of a set of sisters, all of whose names began with "Ja."

Once my husband had Internet access, he collected more names and corresponded with another couple who amused themselves the same way. They made cleverly categorized lists: "The ward choir director's daughters: LaVoice, Choral, Audia."

It makes you wonder what some parents were thinking when, for instance, they named their baby girl Lanae (la-nay)--and she unfortunately ended up with a big nose (le nez [la-nay] in French means "the nose"). Or the girl named M'Lu--are clever wags endlessly asking her to skip to it? And how the heck do people with apostrophes in their names fill out computerized forms? There's no apostrophe space. The guy I really pity, though, is the one saddled with the unfortunate moniker, Rube.

Of course, parents cannot predict what new interpretations the marketplace will bring to the names they lovingly bestow on their offspring. I once worked at a company which had dealings with a woman named LaPriel (pronounced la-prell). When I told my former roommate about this inexplicable first name, she sardonically replied, "What's her sister's name--LaTegrin?"

With the generally larger-than-average family, often saddled with the very ordinary surnames Smith, Johnson, or Young, it's not surprising that many Utah parents look for unique given names for their children. When you throw in the reverence for family and ancestors forwarded by the LDS Church, it seems inevitable that someone would end up with LaEarl, KDell, Arnolene or Hariella.

Some names, though, seem to defy description--if not pronunciation. While pride of place may have spawned Utahna, how did somebody come up with Wealtha? And while Lloydine's genesis seems plausible, how on earth were Printha or Noy coined? And I have no idea what constitutes the correct pronunciation for Kairle or Tawhnye. (I suspect they may be wildly creative spellings of Carol and Tonya.)

Perhaps the name lists on the left (by no means comprehensive) will amuse you. Perhaps they will offend you. Perhaps you will find your name, or the name of a relative, on them. Or perhaps you will be so enchanted by a particular name that you'll want to bestow it upon one of your own offspring. If that is your plan, first do this: go to the back door, fling it open and yell the name at the top of your lungs six or eight times, because that's how it's going to be heard for the next eighteen years. And remember, when little Wynante (boy or girl, you choose) grows up, you'll have to live with the consequences.

Note: Perhaps the consequences are best described by a reader to this website: "My nephew named his baby boy (name witheld) - a spelling variant I have never seen before. Utah-like, he refused to offer justification or explanation for dropping a letter in an ordinary name, and thus condemning the lad to a lifetime of mispelled names, awkward and defensive explanations, dual billings from entities who think he is two people, and so on."

It's worth noting that this prophet has a first name spelling variation of his own, and probably knows what he's talking about.

Article copyright 2005 by Cari B. Clark