Different Is Good for Utah Names

By Christy Karras (October 29, 2002 The Salt Lake Tribune)








If you live in Utah, it's likely that you know one of them -- or are one of them.


Walking the streets of Utah towns, it's likely you have at least brushed up against a BeVan, Alverta, Ra Vae or VaLoy -- or maybe you know toddlers with names like Celsey or Kadon.

For years, many Utah residents, especially Mormons, have known that naming practices here are, well, different.

For many parents, being different is precisely the point.

"A lot of people are inventive in terms of blending one parent's name with the other's, or they're inventive with prefixes. But they're also inventive with spelling. There are all sorts of spellings going on," said Bill Eggington, one of two BYU linguistics professors compiling a volume on naming practices in Mormon culture. "It's something we're really proud of."

Cleveland Kent Evans, a professor at Bellevue University in Nebraska who studies naming practices nationwide, says weird Utah names don't happen as much as the stereotype suggests. Evans did a study comparing names in Utah and Colorado (which has few Mormons) from 1980 to 1998. "The huge majority of people, of course, have names which work in either culture completely," he said. "There were some differences, but most of them were minor."


Evans was struck, though, by the increase in differences over time, a trend that suggests Utah parents are increasingly willing to give their children unique names. It may be, he says, that the stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He compares the change with what happened in the black community during the 1960s.

”At first, whites and blacks had very similar names. But there was a stereotype that black people had different names. The black community took that idea over and made it positive: we're creative," Evans said. "The same thing may just be starting a bit with the LDS church."

Cari Clark, a Mormon and former Utahn now living in Virginia, has been collecting unusual Utah names on a Web site for years and loaned her list to KUER for the basis of a book, Raising LaVaughn, which the station is using as a thank-you gift to donors.

“It used to be kind of a parlor game we played with our friends," she said of the name collecting. "We have close to 5,000 names now. It's not meant to criticize anyone or anything; it's just a lighthearted look at a quirk in the culture."

The phenomenon may have a lot to do with the pride Mormons take in being different from the rest of the world.

"African Americans are very inventive and probably because they see themselves as a unique subculture of American culture," Eggington said. " We [Mormons] see ourselves also as a distinctive subculture of American culture, and we want to distinguish ourselves by distinctive naming practices."

Eggington and Evans say inventing names, which used to be much more common in rural areas, is gaining popularity with upper-class urbanites.

"It was once a stigmatized social practice. It seems that in the last decade or so, we've become more inventive," Eggington said. "It's no longer something the hicks do 'out there' that we don't do in the city."

Another reason for uncommon Utah names is the historical phenomenon of big families, with many relatives living in close proximity. In small Mormon communities, often founded by groups of relatives or polygamous families, it wouldn't be uncommon to have a hundred children with the same last name, Eggington said. Parents had to find ways to distinguish children from their multitude of cousins and siblings. Families who want to name kids after their forbears have limited names to choose from -- names they have to share with siblings and cousins. Thus, Grandpa Earl may spawn names like Earlette, Clark said.

From Abimelech to Zerubbabel, Biblical names pop up in Utah, dredged from the depths of those books most of us don't get to. (Ever notice how more common names come from Genesis, the first book?) This phenomenon is not unusual in places where fundamentalist Christian churches thrive, especially in the rural South.

Indeed, Utah is unusual but not unique. "The unusual names in Utah are not that different from what conservative Protestants have come up with. Mormons take over the role the Baptists and Pentecostals have in other parts of the country," Evans said. "In general, Episcopalians, the old families of Virginia, do not name their daughters JoLene, but people who go to Jerry Falwell's church are more likely."

Of course, it is likely that no one outside the LDS church is naming kids after characters in the Book of Mormon -- a practice that also appears to be on the rise, Evans said.
    People may be giving their kids names they think are new but which are actually trendy. The name Madison, for example, was unheard-of, especially for girls, until the mid-1980s, when it was popularized by Daryl Hannah's mermaid in the movie "Splash." Indeed, hardly a Madison is listed in the phone books, but the name is popping up on babies and toddlers everywhere.

In fact, Madison is an excellent example of how names become popular, Evans said.

"The most popular names get that way because they fit into several popular trends at once," he said. Madison is an example of geographic names, of using last names as first names and taking names from movies and television. And its popularity is partly due to the fact that parents "still don't know anybody their own age with it," Evans said. It has the added advantage of being different, but not too different, sounding a bit like such traditional names as Allison and Megan.

"Americans in general for the last 40 years have said, 'We don't want to have a name that's too common,' " Evans said. Americans think of themselves as individualists; as we find our world becoming more homogenous, we search for ways to differentiate ourselves, he said.

Eggington cautions parents to think of all the ramifications of a unique name. Growing up in Australia, he said, "We used to think someone with a weird name was, well, weird," he said. "Here in Utah that stigma doesn't exist. It sort of lowers the barrier to being distinctive. But parents have to be careful, because everyone's going to get a weird nickname."

Clark says she knows from experience just how troublesome a different name can be and advises parents to stick with traditional names. "Be careful. You can't really predict how people are going to react to it."

Her mother "thought she was simplifying things" by shortening the traditional Carrie. But Cari Clark could never find trinkets in the store with her name on them, and she constantly met people who could not spell or pronounce her name, or who even thought she was a Carl.

"It's a bit of a burden . . . I would legally change it except that it would hurt my mother's feelings," said Clark, whose sister is named Dona, after their father, Don.