A Call to End Mormonspeak

Mormonspeak is a handy catch-all word for the unique vocabulary and phraseology that we have in the LDS Church. It is not inherently bad, but much of it confuses or alienates people unfamiliar with our faith and obscures more relatable and understandable meanings for those of us who are longtime Church members. Most Mormonspeak falls into three categories: jargon, stock phrases, and antiquated language.

1. Jargon

Jargon is not uncommon in life. There is jargon in every workplace, hobby, close-knit group, and area of special interest. While it can be useful for those of us in the know—it is a bit easier to say “FHE” instead of “family home evening,” after all—it is alienating for those not familiar with our customs.

I was hanging out the other night with a few LDS friends and one non-LDS friend. One of the LDS friends kept going on about FHE, wards, stakes, temple recommends, and the Relief Society, all of which are fairly inscrutable to someone not familiar with our lingo. I felt bad for our non-LDS friend. I put myself in his shoes and was distinctly uncomfortable. Like all jargon, our Mormonspeak jargon is difficult for outsiders to understand, and it certainly doesn’t help outsiders feel less like outsiders.

The LDS Church is not a club. You don’t have to give a password or secret handshake to be admitted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it feels that way to our non-LDS friends and acquaintances. Even the word nonmember conveys the idea of an elite club, of us versus them, haves versus have-nots. The difficult-to-decipher or off-putting words and phrases that we use can distract people from the real message of what we’re trying to say to the world. They are friction that can cause the proverbial train that our non-LDS friends are riding in to roll to a stop before it gets to the point of attending church, meeting with missionaries, or wanting to be baptized.

On top of that, some of the stuff we say is just plain weird. Referring to each other as Sister or Brother So-And-So in church is one thing, but it’s weird to do it elsewhere. I remember being in third grade when my mom came to help our class with something. I had a good LDS friend in the class there with me, and he kept referring to my mom as Sister Higbee. Even as an eight-year-old, I remember feeling uncomfortable when he said that. Or consider the fact that we refer to 18-year-olds as elders. Think about how that sounds to normal, non-LDS folks listening in. Is it any wonder that people think we’re strange?

2. Stock phrases

“Please bless this food that it will nourish and strengthen our bodies.” “I know it with every fiber of my being.” “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know the Church is true.” “

These are not normal phrases. No one talks like this in real life. Yet these snippets of Mormonspeak are incredibly common. In fact, we use them so much that they lose a lot of their meaning. Tell me, why exactly do we bless food? What does it mean to you that the Church or Book of Mormon is true? What does it mean to you to know something for certain? What on earth is a fiber of your being?

The problem with these stock phrases is not that they are not lovely or that they are wholly inaccurate, but that they cause those of us who use them to take the easy way out of a deeper, more personal lexical-spiritual conundrum. Instead of really probing and examining what it is that we feel, instead of using our own words to articulate those feelings, we pick one of the stock Mormonspeak phrases up off the shelf and splice it in where necessary. This not only robs those of us who say such phrases of valuable introspection, but it fails to convey the nuances of individual thought and feeling to those who hear what we’re saying. What these phrases do perpetuate is the Church’s image as a bland, homogenous group made up of brainwashed zombies that cannot think for themselves.

For a people so concerned with praying in our own words and with avoiding vain repetitions of any kind, we sure do seem to constantly repeat what we hear without thinking much about it.

3. Antiquated language

Apart from using whole phrases that sound a bit off if you’ve never heard them before, we use individual words that are just plain old and not in common use anymore. These words are often used in the guise of respect. For example, we use words like thee, thy, and thou when praying, the idea being that these words convey more respect and reverence. These words were actually originally the informal/familiar form of the word you. We seem have incorporated them into our prayers not because of their real meanings, but because we equate the words with scripture and other sacred things. This isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but I know that I’ve heard new Church members express feelings of inadequacy or unease with praying using these words simply because these words are unfamiliar. I think we can all agree that that is the last thing that Heavenly Father would want.

(It is worth noting here as an aside that with most other languages that I know of that have modern forms of the word you that are both formal and informal, the informal/familiar version of the word is used when praying. In my mind, using thee and thou in prayer is formality on the level of starting out a letter with “Dear Sir or Madam,” and it feels strange—definitely at odds to the image of communicating with a loving father that we should try to be close with.)

There are so many examples of us using strange and antiquated language in various church settings that it’s hard to know which specific ones to talk about here. To start with, we like to use the word even a lot and in strange ways, as in, “We have a living prophet today, even Thomas S. Monson.” Why is the word even even in there? What does it mean? What does it add? And when is the last time you heard the word “bosom” used outside of a religious setting or 19th-century writing? Yet if someone at the pulpit on Sunday said that they had a burning in their bosom or breast, most Church members wouldn’t bat an eye. Go read any recent conference talk from a native English speaker and you will find that archaic or at least nonstandard language has worked its way into sections that really have no reason being anything other then perfectly clear and accessible via contemporary language.

The archaic language of the Book of Mormon and King James translation of the Bible can be needlessly incomprehensible. Heaven help you if your native language is not English and you try to read the Book of Mormon or King James Bible. Just as we don’t endorse suffering for suffering’s sake, we shouldn’t endorse linguistic obscurity for the sake of obscurity. Christ’s words were not understood by all not because the people didn’t understand the individual words he was saying, but because they didn’t understand the deeper meanings. Wouldn’t that be a nice place to return to?

If the idea is for everyone to have access to the gospel, shouldn’t the language we use be accessible to everyone? Can we all agree that having the gift of tongues is not the kind of prerequisite people interested in our church need to have just to figure out what on earth we’re talking about? When we use Mormonspeak, the plain and precious truths of the restored gospel become decidedly less plain and more difficult to understand, let alone apply. We need to break out of the comfortable Mormon rut or bubble that many of us find ourselves in. Take a step back and look at how you speak about Church- and gospel-related things. Do you do it in a way that entices and attracts or alienates and repels? Is your gospel-related speech inclusive or exclusive? Is what you’re saying vain repetition or an accurate representation of what you really think and feel? The gospel should be “simple enough to be understood by a child” [via]. By making an effort to cut down on Mormonspeak, we help make sure that that is the case.