Guest post from BCC’s friend Elouise
Noticing the title of a book in my hands, friend Nancy asked, “Fernet Branca: is that a Mormon name?”
“Yes,” I said. “Fernet is the daughter of Fernell Young, one of BYU’s great quarterback’s, and Annette Oldham Young, erstwhile Pom-Pom Princess, now CEO of Lighthouse Romance Publishers, Inc.”
“Thought as much,” Nancy said.
Of course, BCC readers will recognize Cooking with Fernet Branca as the very successful comic novel by James Hamilton-Patterson, and Fernet Branca as a popular aperitif. But despite my flippant answer, the question Nancy raised about “Mormon names” is a provocative one. Certainly most Mormons have names indistinguishable from those of their non-member neighbors, whether in Taiwan or Tucson, Calgary or Costa Mesa. But every now and then a moniker does raise the question, “Is that a Mormon name?”
A superb feature actor in countless Hollywood films was named Moroni Olsen (1889-1954). Theoretically, he could have been Greek Orthodox or Lutheran, but his biographers confirm that he was indeed “born of Mormon parents” in Ogden, and he never changed his distinctive first name to Morton or Ronnie or anything else. During the 2000 Summer Olympics, TV viewers watched two very beefy men stand toe to toe, arms locked around each other, seemingly motionless for quite a long time, until finally a referee made a decision and proclaimed the younger man the gold-medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling. When the champion was identified as Rulon Gardner, I said excitedly, ”That has to be a Mormon name.” No, it really didn’t have to be, but it sure sounded Mormon to me, and indeed it was. A twelve-year old Salvadoran boy I met in Provo had the name Abinadai; he was a Mormon, sure enough, but chose to go by “Abby.” I am currently perplexed by another athlete: Neifi Perez, third baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The fellow’s name is pronounced “Nay-fee,” which is how “Nephi” sounds in Spanish. Is “Neifi” a “Mormon name” in this case? Anyone know?
Years ago, I learned a lesson about “Mormon names,” and had to eat a large dish of crow as a result. In 1972, BYU Professor Donald R. Marshall publilshed a collection of wonderful short pieces called The Rummage Sale. Delightfully original, dealing with themes and characters familiar to most Mormons, the book was a gem. Asked to write a review, I was hard put to find anything to criticize. Not wanting the review to sound like press agent puffery, I finally chided Marshall for being a little extreme in his creation of bizarre character names, which were, I wrote, comical but overdone. (“La Rena Homer,” “Rilla Foy,” “Orlo J. Dastrup,” “Reula Fay,” “Ernadene,””Rell,” “Floydene Wallup,” et al). By the way, my Word Perfect spelling monitor has crankily underlined in red every one of the names just listed.
The day after my review appeared in print, I found in my faculty mail box a copy of the previous week’s Garfield County News. No note, no penciled comments, just the newspaper. But on page one alone, I found more, um, unusual names than Marshall had used in his entire book.
I hope there are still distinctively Mormon names out there, but I fear they may have gone the way of bread-and-milk suppers and “Beehive Honor.”