The Etymology Of The Word Mormon

The word Mormon commonly denotes an adherent, practitioner, follower, or constituent of Mormonism in restorationist Christianity. Let us find out the etymology of the word Mormon.

What was written in 1843?

In 1843, Joseph Smith wrote in Times and Seasons, a Mormon publication: Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error among men. . . . The error I speak of, is the definition of the word "MORMON." It has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek morme. This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of that book speak for itself. On the 523d page, of the fourth edition, it reads: "And now behold we have written this record according to our knowledge in the characters which are called among us the Reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech; and if our plates had been sufficiently large, we should have written in Hebrew, but the Hebrew hath been altered by us, also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have had no imperfection in our record, but the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also, that none other people knoweth our language; therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof." Here then the subject is put to silence, for "none other people knoweth our language," therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were all dead. . . . I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation.--Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good; for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, "I am the good shepherd;" and it will not be beyond the common use of the terms, to say that good is among the most important in use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to bad. We say from the Saxon, good; the Dane, god; the Goth, goda; the German gut; the Dutch, goed; the Latin, bonus; the Greek, kalos; the Hebrew, tob; and the Egyptian, mon. Hence, with the addition of more, or the contraction, mor, we have the word MORMON; which means, literally, more good. Yours, Joseph Smith.(1)

Linguistic Challenges

How convenient that the so-called Reformed Egyptian language allegedly spoken by the fictional Nephites was not spoken by any other people. With their demise the language was no longer spoken. As a result, it would seem that all linguistic challenges to the etymology of the word Mormon are successfully stifled. How could one challenge Joseph Smith's rendering of the word Mormon? According to him, Mormon is a hybrid word consisting of two words. The first part of the word is a contraction of the English word, "more"; the second part of the word is allegedly taken from the Reformed Egyptian, -mon, "good."(2) Joseph Smith claims -mon is from a language no longer spoken and which was so altered by those who did at onetime speak it that it resembled no other language. In this way, Joseph Smith hoped to achieve his purpose: "the subject is put to silence." If his explanation of the etymology of the word Mormon is any indication of the existence of Reformed Egyptian, than it can safely be assumed that it has always been an non-existent language. Let us study the first half of the word, mor-. The etymology of this half of the word is known. The adverb more is from the Old English mare. Old English was spoken c. 450-1150 C.E. Since the dates are somewhat flexible in language evolution, one may safely say that Old English beginnings are contemporary with the alleged completion of the Book of Mormon by Moroni, the son of Mormon. This would be around the year 421, when, we are told, the Nephites were completely annihilated by the Lamanites. Since the pronunciation more is of a much later date than that of mare, the pronunciation contemporary with the last of the fictional Nephites, the proper pronunciation would be Mârmon not Môrmon. The pronunciation did not evolve, as in English, because of the death of the last speaker of Reformed Egyptian, c. 421 C.E. Why does Joseph Smith teach that the word Mormon is a hybrid of English and Reformed Egyptian? There is simply no way the word could have developed among the Nephites, even if they had ever existed. The Nephites did not understand or even know of the existence of the English language. As such, the English word, more, would have had no meaning for them. It is no wonder that Joseph Smith said, "I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation." How else can he excuse this gross distortion of language? The anachronistic use of the English word more brings into question the very existence of -mon as an actual ancient or modern word. Joseph Smith declared: "Let the language of that book speak for itself." It certainly does! As with spiritual matters, Joseph Smith attempted to hide the corruption of language behind the cloak of divine learning and wisdom. In the process, his lack of learning and wisdom became abundantly clear.

1 Times and Seasons, Nauvoo, Illinois, vol. 4 (1843), p. 194.

2 According to Budge, the ancient Egyptian word for "good," is nefer. (See, Sir E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Language: Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1971, p. 127.)

© Gerald Sigal