A guest post by Jennifer Mansfield
On March 3, 2012, Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring cast members impersonating Mitt Romney and his sons. The actors portraying Mitt Romney’s five adult sons introduced themselves—the first as Tagg, which is Mitt Romney’s oldest son’s name. The other four sons called themselves Tanner, Tictac, Targalack, and Tiggit. (The names of Mitt Romney’s other four sons are actually Craig, Ben, Matt, and Josh.)
While the skit was obviously meant to convey something about Mitt Romney personally, it also pointed out what writers may have believed to be a notable and humorous characteristic of Mormons: distinctive naming practices.
SNL’s decision to portray the sons as replicas of one another may provide clues about why “Mormon Corridor” Mormons are often known for practicing distinctive naming patterns, as was pointed out recently in a By Common Consent blog post by Jessie Jensen. In 2012, I explored this phenomenon in my master’s thesis project titled “‘It’s Wraylynn—with a W’: Distinctive Mormon Naming Practices.”
Among other things, I wanted to better understand the motivations for the distinctive contemporary Mormon naming practices that are visible enough to be picked up by the wider American culture. Where else but in the Mormon world would we find names like Aimzlee, LaMar, Kaisen, Legend, Brylianna, Xylie, Drasyn, Kaybree, Race, Breydin, and Haizley?
Saturday Night Live’s skit suggests that the wider American population seems to view all Mormons as culturally homogenous while Mormons themselves see the “Mormon Corridor” as a different subgroup within Mormonism. The “Mormon Corridor” (“Jell-O Belt”) subculture has been created out of the concentration of Mormons in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona, which has led to a notably homogenous group.
In contrast, Mormons outside of Utah are generally part of a community that consists of large numbers of non-Mormons. According to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s 2012 survey of over 1,000 members of the LDS Church, 55% of Mormons in the United States report that most or all of their close friends are Mormon. In Utah, on the other hand, 73% of Mormons say that most or all of their close friends are also Mormon. This illustrates how similar many Mormons may be from one another, culturally speaking.
In addition to this high level of cultural homogeneity, the LDS Church is also distinctive in the degree of counsel, guidelines, and behavioral expectations it gives to its members. The Church dictates members’ sexual practices, what does and does not go into their bodies, and how time should be spent in religious-oriented activities. Even personal appearance is dictated to some degree through standards of dress, prohibitions on multiple piercings and tattoos, and a caution against “extreme” hairstyles.
Perhaps because naming is one of few areas in which the Church has not formally instructed its members, Mormons in heavily Mormon areas might use naming as a way to set them apart and express individuality to some degree. Ironically, the act of unique and creative naming does not set them apart, but instead is another characteristic shared with many of their Mormon neighbors.
Interestingly, distinctive naming patterns seem to be a less-common practice for Mormons outside of the Mormon Corridor. In these places, being a Mormon in and of itself makes a person different from his or her neighbors because Mormons are a visible sub-culture. An LDS Living write-up of my research prompted a comment from sweetcarol126:
“…I realize there are names like that and they hold their names proudly, but I wouldn’t do it in my mixed culture of being Mormon and being where most of my neighbors are not. Our lifestyle makes us unusual enough and we get opportunities to say that we are Mormon. They believe us without the strange name” [emphasis mine].
This comment underscores the idea that belonging to the LDS Church outside the Mormon Corridor is usually enough to distinguish Mormons from their neighbors. Contrast that idea, again, with the fact that 73% of Mormons in Utah report that the majority of their friends are also Mormon.
Mormonism isn’t enough to make you distinct when people who are distinct in the exact same ways surround you on every side.
It seems as though members in Utah feel so similar to everyone else that (consciously or unconsciously) they try to find other ways to express their individuality in ways that do not carry negative consequences. Names carry an especially heavy weight in the LDS Church (perhaps inspired to some extent by Helaman 5:6-7), so naming feels like a meaningful place to invest creativity without suffering the repercussions that come from being different in other ways.
That all being said, my strong impression is that very few Mormons deliberately use baby naming practices to rebel against the pressures of social conformity that come along with being part of a tight-knit religious subculture. No one I’ve spoken with seems to realize that their “unique” names are not unique at all, but instead are yet another characteristic they share with many of their Mormon neighbors.
Jennifer Mansfield is a folklorist currently living with her husband and young daughter in Cache Valley, Utah. She loves college so much that she decided to teach at Utah State University after completing her education there.