Sharon Black and Brad Wilcox, "188 Unexplainable Names: Book of Mormon Names No Fiction Writer Would Choose," Religious Educator 12, no. 2 (2011): 119–133.
Sharon Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) was an associate teaching professor in the school of education at BYU when this was written.
Brad Wilcox (email@example.com) was an associate professor of education at BYU when this was written.
Considering Joseph's limited formal education, it is highly unlikely he invented the 188 unique names found in the Book of Mormon. John Luke. © Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Lehi, Nephi, Helaman, Shiblon, Moronihah, Amalickiah, Korihor, Pahoran, Lamoni, Zeezrom, Shiz—what strange names! Most are difficult to pronounce, remember, classify, and keep straight. And there are 188 of them. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient records that included authentic names, which he was not at liberty to change. Some critics maintain that the Book of Mormon is fiction and that Joseph invented the names in the same way many authors of fiction do. It would be interesting to study this topic in more depth.
Many successful fiction writers who choose and invent names for their characters claim name selection is an extremely important and difficult process. Literary name specialist Leonard Ashley asserted, “Names require serious and sensitive handling.” If Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon as a work of fiction, did he handle names as seriously and sensitively as authors of fiction claim that they do?
To answer this question, we interviewed six contemporary writers of children’s books, adolescent literature, and adult fiction about their naming views and strategies. These authors’ names and some of their representative works are included in the appendix to this article. Into the mix we added the viewpoints of some authors who have written about their naming practices in books and on websites, along with the opinions of scholars whose works could be found on websites and library shelves. We have grouped our findings into five categories mentioned by all the authors whose works or words we consulted. Interestingly enough, Joseph Smith does not appear to have followed any of these conventions.
- Authors make conscious and deliberate choices for character names, some of which require a great deal of time and consideration.
- They choose names that are easily accessible so that readers can clearly distinguish between characters and keep them straight.
- They are careful that names fit the characters’ personalities, backgrounds, and cultures.
- They go to many different sources to find names that are accurate and interesting.
- They often choose names that have personal significance for them.
We offer this study, recognizing its limitations. First, the study of names—onomastics—is an imprecise discipline. Paul Y. Hoskisson refers to it as being “composed of informed guesses punctuated with uncertainty.” Second, our informed guesses are based on a relatively small number of authors, who are from a different time period than Joseph Smith. However, as we have compared comments of onomasticians and writers with authoritative research and analysis of Book of Mormon names, we have found many reasons to challenge the argument that the 188 names introduced (not adopted or adapted) in the Book of Mormon were the creations of a writer of fiction. This article will examine each of the themes discussed by writers we consulted and compare them to patterns and relationships in Book of Mormon names.
In an essay titled “Mudpies Which Endure,” scholar Leonard Ashley quipped, “Names are necessary: even Dogpatch’s unnecessary mountain has a name (Onnecessary Mountain).” Names establish identity and reveal information about the nature of the thing named. Assigning names requires deliberate and painstaking effort; the authors we interviewed and read about all agreed on this matter. Specific processes, however, vary.
Michael Tunnell, author of fiction for both children and adolescents, admits that occasionally a name comes quickly, but he labors over most of them. For Tunnell, studying Arabic history and culture was part of this labor as he wrote Wishing Moon and Moon Without Magic, both set in the Middle East. Similarly, Chris Crowe, author of histories, biographies, and historical fiction, remarked, “The names I give are not just deliberate choices, they are very deliberate choices.” The names of Crowe’s fictional characters in Mississippi Trial, 1955 are as historically accurate as the carefully researched names in his nonfiction works like Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case and his biographies of author Mildred Taylor and civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall.
Some authors tend to put off final name decisions until the novel is well in process or even completed. Chris Stewart, author of a number of techno-military novels and the Great and Terrible series, explained that the “character always precedes the name,” and since characters evolve during the writing, “sometimes I have named a character ‘X’ because I didn’t want to throw a name in and get used to it.” For example, if an intended villain evolves into a nicer character, the villainous name needs to change; Stewart has sometimes “changed names midstream.” Leaving characters unnamed for a while makes it easier to let this process happen.
Shannon Hale, New York Times best-selling and national award-winning author of Princess Academy, The Goose Girl, and other fantasy novels for young readers, agrees with Stewart. She doesn’t like to spend “first draft energy” on names, so she begins by naming her characters quickly and spontaneously, with the intention of changing the names later, “when I can think about it and make more conscious choices.” Sometimes she has called a character by a particular name for two years, then changed it right before a book goes to press. Brandon Mull, author of the New York Times best-selling Fablehaven series of fantasies for adolescents, explains that for him names must often evolve as a character evolves. Because many of his characters have fantasy names, he sometimes manipulates sounds and sound combinations to develop a new name until it “tastes better.”
Joseph Smith reportedly produced the Book of Mormon in approximately sixty days. He had no time to “taste” the names it contains, though they are far more numerous and more complex and varied (yet internally consistent) than names of any novel or series of novels we have ever encountered. It appears that savoring names was not part of Joseph Smith’s process. Unequipped with computers or even typewriters, Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to a series of scribes, who later reported that he did not hesitate over proper names. He dictated all 337 of them (188 unique ones and 149 also found in the Bible) without pausing in his narrative. Emma, his wife, who spent some time as his scribe, reported that although he could not pronounce many of the names, he spelled all of them carefully and corrected the spelling when she had misunderstood it. Associates who observed the dictation process (David Whitmer and Joseph Knight) confirmed this procedure. Scholars who have studied different manuscripts and printings of the Book of Mormon note finding some variations in spelling for common words but careful control of the spelling of names. An analysis of Book of Mormon names revealed remarkable linguistic consistency despite haste, spontaneity, and pronunciation problems. Unlike successful fiction writers, Joseph Smith appears not to have spent time considering or revising names.
Contemporary fiction writer Scott Nicholson has used a modern metaphor to express the danger of a poorly chosen character name: “You don’t want the name to throw up a speed bump for the reader.” All of our interviewees agreed that names must be accessible. Readers must be able to pronounce them, differentiate them, remember them, and keep them straight. When Chris Stewart began writing, he did not worry about similar names or repeated sounds, but his editor let him know that he was going to have to make some changes, which he did. Now Stewart is more careful.
In creating fantasy cultures and civilizations for adolescent readers, Shannon Hale has to come up with large numbers of names; however, she is careful to avoid having two significant characters whose names begin with the same sound. When interviewed, she admitted that sometimes she stares at her keyboard to remind herself of letters that she has not yet used in a particular book.
Brandon Mull also avoids repeating initial sounds in the names of his fantasy characters. He does not want his readers to experience the confusion he felt when he first encountered Sauron and Saruman in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Joseph Smith died too soon to encounter Sauron and Saruman, and his scribes had too much faith in his role as translator to suggest that he was using too many similar names. From the very beginning of the Book of Mormon, the reader has to remain alert. One of the first characters to appear—Lehi—has a kinsman named Laban and an eldest son named Laman; a rather nasty encounter between the two is one of the earliest episodes in the narrative. Laman’s next-in-line brother and cohort in rebellion is Lemuel, also too close for the comfort of many modern editors, especially because the two are so often linked that a reader can start to interpret “Laman ’n’ Lemuel” as a compound name. Maybe we could explain such odd choices in names by saying that Joseph Smith must have had some kind of premonition that scholars of the future would discover that the names Laman and Lemuel were in Arabic a “pair of pendant names,” often given by ancient desert Semites to the two eldest sons of a family. As if Lehi, Laban, Laman, and Lemuel were not confusing enough, Joseph Smith later included characters named Lamah, Lachoneus, Lamoni, Lehonti, and Limhi.
A few other rule-breaking name combinations include the following:
- Two Almas (father and son), three Aarons (unrelated), two Ammons (unrelated), two Amalekis, Abinadi, Abinadom, Abish, Akish, Amulek, Amulon, Amlici, Amalickiah and Ammoron (nasty brothers), and Antipus (one of the generals who helped defeat them). Joseph Smith may not have realized that Ammon was the name of the Egyptian “god of the empire” in Lehi’s day, or he might have been more careful in using it. Other names derived from Ammon (consistent with Egyptian name-forming practices) include Aminidab, Aminadi, Amnihu, and Amnor, following an ancient linguistic procedure somehow worked out by Joseph Smith.
- Gadianton and Gidianhi (a couple of robbers); Gideon, Gilead, Gilgal, Gid, Gidgiddonah, and Gidgiddoni (all military leaders or strategists). Gidgiddonah and Gidgiddoni both come from the same Egyptian stem and mean “Thoth hath said I shall live” and “Thoth hath said we shall live.” Gidianhi was a “typical Egyptian name” meaning “Thoth is my life.” (Did Joseph Smith even know Thoth was considered one of the most important Egyptian gods? Highly unlikely.)
- Zarahemla, Zerahemnah, Zeezrom, Zemnarihah, Zenephi, Zenos, Zenock, Zeram, and three Zorams.
- Gentilics (derivations of names of persons or lands), including Lamoni (which means “Lamanite”—which he was), Muloki (which probably comes from “Mulekite”), and Moroni (which means “coming from the land of Moron,” a Book of Mormon land).
This is only a sample. Scholars have traced these and other names largely to ancient Egyptian and Hebrew languages, “with a sprinkling of Hittite, Arabic, and Greek.” They assert that the variations on the names follow correct rules. So these names are linguistically and culturally justifiable—confusing though they may be. Some might argue that Joseph Smith did not appear to have the ability to generate names that are accessible to readers as modern writers have because he was not as experienced or educated. However, that argument does not explain the fact that Book of Mormon names are accurate based on the originating cultures, something that would be impossible for an unschooled amateur.
The requirement for character names most frequently mentioned by authors we interviewed, read, or read about was that the name must “fit” the character (e.g., Stewart and Tunnell), also expressed as “feel right” (Hale). Stewart explained that “names convey something about characters, and I try to use that for all it is worth.”
Leonard Ashley commented that as we study names, “we see [words] releasing their magic.” He explained, “Names help create the characters in a work of fiction and connect them with . . . the readership and its experience, the ‘cultural context’ and the rest of the real frame of reference.” Finnish onomastician Yvonne Bertills noted why this happens: “Proper names are, to some degree, culturally and linguistically specific.” Hoskisson, an onomastician who specializes in Book of Mormon names, notes why this creation of culture through names is significant beyond a single reading experience: “An understanding of proper names can become a key to unlock windows through which we may look to study the language and culture of the people and places who bore those names.”
Thus authors who want to portray a culture different from their own must find names that appropriately represent and reflect that culture. For example, in a historical novel set in Mississippi during the 1950s, Crowe named a white trash bully R. C. Rydell. In looking through newspapers of the period, Crowe noticed that many uneducated whites went by their initials, thinking this made them seem more important. RC Cola was popular during the fifties, and Rydell was a sought-after brand of athletic shoes. By these subtle references, Crowe bound the character and thus his attitudes and behavior to the teen culture of the period. Alleen and Don Nilson, former copresidents of the American Name Society, say such a use of names keeps readers “immersed in the time period.”
Similarly, when Shannon Hale decided to set Book of a Thousand Days in Mongolia, she found that Mongolian names were quite long and potentially confusing for readers. So she created names from Mongolian root words: e.g., Dashti (good luck), Saran (moon), Batu (loyal), Erdene (jewel), Chinua (wolf), and Khasar (terrible dog).
Joseph Smith was representing a culture from the distant past. No one living in his time had ever witnessed any of it or known any of its people. Existing historical works on the Americas did not go back that far. Little was understood of its languages, even by recognized scholars such as Charles Anthon, Luther Bradish, and Samuel L. Mitchell, who are said to have at one point spoken for the authenticity of some of the copied Book of Mormon characters. But the day would come when scholars would understand and publish many facts about the cultures and languages of the time, which would be relevant to public understanding and acceptance of the book.
Because future evidence would emerge, character names had to be culturally and linguistically accurate—situated in a culture no one yet understood. Unlike Crowe, Joseph Smith could not create a name from a specific drink or footwear. Unlike Hale, Joseph Smith could not look up ancient Hebrew and Egyptian word roots, as these were yet to be discovered on ancient papyri, clay tablets, and bullae (round seals). It was more than a century and a half later that relevant artifacts were recovered, particularly from the Elephantine region of Egypt, an area to which refugees from Jerusalem commonly migrated near the time Lehi and his family fled from this city’s persecution. This kind of projection would be very difficult to make in a realistic work—no novelist we know would undertake it in two months’ time, particularly under duress from the heavy religious persecution that haunted Joseph Smith and his scribes.
Brandon Mull admitted that “when you have to come up with name after name, you just can’t do it on your own without them sounding alike.” Modern fiction writers have found valuable names in a variety of sources. When J. K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series, needed a name for a vain, publicity-seeking, blowhard professor, she found Gilderoy in the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Lockhart on a war memorial. “The two together said everything I wanted about the character,” she explained. Some authors go to newspaper headlines or obituaries. Brandon Mull saw the name John Dart on a tombstone and found it “just a great name” for a character in The Candy Shop War. Mull even used road signs for names. He noticed a road between Las Vegas and California named Zzyzx. “That has to be the last word possible in the English language. In any alphabetized list, it would have to be dead last,” he thought. In choosing a name for a demon prison in the Fablehaven series, “the last place on earth that anyone would want to go,” he decided on Zzyzx.
Though such unlikely sources are fun to talk about, most authors find they get better mileage out of name lists. Lists not only give ideas for names, they also help authors make sure that names are culturally and ethnically appropriate for remote or minority characters. Dean Hughes, who has published more than eighty adolescent and adult novels, joins many authors in using telephone books as name sources. Hughes finds this particularly helpful for ethnic names. He plays mix and match, however; perhaps a first name from the top of a column and a surname from further down.
The Internet offers a considerable variety of name lists, selected according to a wide range of criteria. In addition to foreign name lists and ethnic name lists, an author can find lists of names for various historical periods. For example, an author would not use Zoe for a character born in the 1980s, when it was considered “an extinct name,” but it would be just fine in 2010. Some authors like baby name lists. There are also online name generators, including “Humorous Name Generator,” “Evil Name Generator,” “Fantasy Name Generator,” and even “Pirate Name Generator.”
Joseph Smith had fewer resources. The telephone book had not yet been invented. Newspapers and tombstones were plentiful, but ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Arabs were not prominent in the news or the cemeteries. The only ancient names in Joseph Smith’s culture were in the Bible, and he needed 188 more. Even if published lists had been available, Joseph Smith was churning out names so fast that he probably would not have taken the time to use them.
All the authors we interviewed and many of those who wrote about name selection admitted that they sometimes slipped personal associations into their name rosters. This is not surprising. After extensive study of names in fiction, Yvonne Bertills wrote, “The author’s own personal background and intentions form one significant criterion for name formation and selection of literary characters.” J. K. Rowling chose the name for her successful wizard because Harry happened to be her favorite boy name and Potter was the surname of close childhood friends. Orson Scott Card named the brutal Mazer Rackham after Karl G. Maeser, the gentle German scholar who founded Brigham Young University, and Arthur Rackham, an illustrator of fairy tales; the names just happened to sound harsh. Brandon Mull put his little sister’s best friend and his little brother’s best friend in the starring roles in Fablehaven and included his cousin and great-grandfather in the cast. Michael Tunnell named many of the characters in School Spirits after his own former schoolmates and a school principal. Tunnell named the three children in Beauty and the Beastly Children after the three musketeers. Dean Hughes sometimes writes himself into his novels, and he likes to call the character Dennis.
Having no close Hebrew, Egyptian, Arabic, or Hittite relatives or associates (that he was aware of), Joseph Smith was not able to feature family names in the Book of Mormon. There is a Joseph (his own and his father’s name), along with allusions to biblical Joseph, but it would not be natural to have a book set in an ancient Hebrew culture without at least one Joseph and some biblical allusions.
Critics have accused Joseph Smith of naming Nephi’s brother Sam after his own brother Samuel Harrison Smith—chiding him for using the short nickname, which sounded “modern,” rather than the more Hebraic Samuel. Ironically, the name Sam, which has been attested as an ancient form, having been found on a bronze seal from seventh century BC, can also be read as “Shem,” which is quite biblical. There is a Samuel in the Book of Mormon—almost six hundred years later—and the shortened Sam is not used for him.
The 337 names included by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon (188 of which had never been heard or written before) seem to violate all the rules for choosing fictional names:
- Joseph did not make conscious and deliberate choices. He dictated his manuscript to scribes without even pausing when he introduced extremely complex names.
- Joseph did not choose names that would be easily accessible to readers. On the contrary, the names are almost all quite long and complex; his scribes reported that he could not pronounce most of them himself but had to spell them. Many of them are quite similar and easily confused: sounds are repeated with very little variation in surrounding sounds, and some names seem to be close variants of others.
- Joseph did not choose names to fit characters. Some names are given to both heroes and villains, and no real correspondence has been noted between sound and personality. The Book of Mormon is set in times and cultures with languages about which Joseph Smith knew nothing. He knew little about its antecedent Hebrew and Egyptian languages or cultures at the time of translation, although he did study them during later periods of his life.
- Joseph did not use different resources. Local artifacts of Joseph Smith’s lifetime and lifestyle had no connection to the civilization of the Book of Mormon or its culture or languages. Ancient and foreign name lists were not available.
- Joseph did not choose names because of personal associations. The only Book of Mormon names with any connection to Joseph Smith’s family or associates are Joseph and Samuel—such common names in ancient Hebrew cultures and so prominent in the Bible that claims of personal connections seem unfounded.
Does Joseph Smith’s disregard for naming conventions indicate he was a careless craftsman, or does it indicate he was a careful translator of a record full of authentic names which were not his inventions? For Joseph Smith to have invented the 188 unique names found in the Book of Mormon seems highly unlikely. Coming up with that many names would have been overwhelming—especially considering Joseph’s limited formal education. Even if someone were to suggest that inventing that number of names in a severely limited time frame might have been possible, their consistency with language patterns yet to be discovered removes it far from the realm of probability.
If the Book of Mormon is a clever work of fiction, it is reasonable to expect that Joseph Smith chose character names in the way that clever fiction writers do. However, this study demonstrates that he did not.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Book of Mormon Names,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:186–87.
 Scott Nicholson, “What’s in a Name?,” Fiction Factor: The Online Magazine for Fiction Writers, http//
 Leonard F. Ashley, “Mudpies Which Endure: Onomastics as a Tool of Literary Criticism,” in Names in Literature: Essays from Literary Onomastics Studies, ed. Grace Alvarez-Altman and Frederick M. Burelback (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), 28.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 64–65.
 Ashley, “Mudpies Which Endure,” 28.
 Neal A. Maxwell, “By the Gift and Power of God,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002); Royal Skousen, “Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30, no. 1 (1990): 52–53.
 Skousen, “Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon,” 52–53.
 John A. Tvedtnes, “A Phonemic Analysis of Nephite and Jaredite Proper Names,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the SEHA 141 (December 1977; FARMS reprint, 1977): 1–8.
 Nicholson, “What’s in a Name?,”
 Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1964), 283.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 286.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 287.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 287–88.
 John A. Tvedtnes, “What’s in a Name? A Look at the Book of Mormon Onomasticon,” FARMS Review 8, no. 2 (1996): 34–42; Matthew Roper and John A. Tvedtnes, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 147–99.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 281.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 281.
 Ashley, “Mudpies Which Endure,” 11–12.
 Yvonne Bertills, Beyond Identification: Proper Names in Children’s Literature (Åbo, Finland: Åbo Akademi University Press, 2003), 17.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 72.
 Chris Crowe, Mississippi Trial, 1955 (New York: Penguin, 2002).
 Alleen P. Nilson and Don L. F. Nilson, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2007), 47.
 Shannon Hale, “Naming Dashti,” http://
 John Gee, Matthew Roper, and John A. Tvedtnes, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 40–51; Tvedtnes, “What’s in a Name?” 34–42; Matthew Roper and John A. Tvedtnes, “Further Evidence for Book of Mormon Names,” Insights 19, no. 12 (1999); Matthew Roper and John A. Tvedtnes, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 147–99.
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 285; Gee, Roper, and Tvedtnes, “Book of Mormon Names Attested.”
 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 285.
 As quoted in Lindsey Fraser, Conversations with J. K. Rowling (New York: Scholastic, 2001), 38–39.
 Grace Alvarez-Altman, “A Methodology for Literary Onomastics: An Analytical Guide for Studying Names in Literature, “in Names in Literature: Essays from Literary Onomastics Studies, ed. Grace Alvarez-Altman and Frederick M. Burelback (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), 9.
 Bertills, Beyond Identification, 46.
 As quoted in Fraser, Conversations with J. K. Rowling, 32.
 As quoted in Nilson and Nilson, Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature, 98.
 Michael O. Tunnell, School Spirits (New York: Holiday House, 1997).
 Michael O. Tunnell, Beauty and the Beastly Children (New York: Tambourine Books, 1993).
 Roper and Tvedtnes, “One Small Step,” 147–99.
 See Gee, Roper, and Tvedtnes, “Book of Mormon Names Attested,” 51.
Books with an asterisk are those referred to in the text of the article.
*Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case
*Thurgood Marshall: Up Close
*Presenting Mildred D. Taylor
More Than a Game: Sports Literature for Young Adults
*Mississippi Trial, 1955
Fatherhood, Football, and Turning Forty
*The Goose Girl
*Book of a Thousand Days
Children of the Promise (series)
Hearts of the Children (series)
Search and Destroy
Missing in Action
Facing the Enemy
As Wide as the River
Under the Same Stars
Cinnamon Tree (series)
Nutty Nutshell (series)
Angel Park Soccer Stars (series)
Angel Park Hoop Stars (series)
Angel Park All-Stars (series)
*The Candy Shop War
Beyonders: A World Without Heroes
*The Great and Terrible (series)
The Fourth War
The God of War
The Kill Box
Seven Miracles That Saved America: Why They Matter and Why We Should Have Hope (with Ted Stewart)
The Joke’s on George
*Beauty and the Beastly Children
The Children of Topaz
The Prydain Companion
*Moon Without Magic
Brothers in Valor