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Vord of Visdom

1900s Mormons had a penchant for funny nicknames


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Whenever the LDS faithful gather for conference, as they will April 4 and 5, I think of my father. He liked to watch the proceedings on television. I am sure he was the only one in the audience smoking Camels as the brethren held forth from the Tabernacle pulpit. He was raised a "Sanpete Mormon" in Ephraim, 120 miles south of Salt Lake City, the last stop on Highway 89 before the Manti Temple. Like most Mormons in Sanpete County in the 19th century, his great grandparents emigrated from Denmark. What distinguished them from Brigham Young's other Deseret enclaves was their brand of "low peasant" humor. That and the fact that Sanpete Mormons were likely to ignore the Word of Wisdom's prohibition of coffee, tobacco and alcohol—and joke about it! They loved humorous stories—typically recounted in a Danish-tinged dialect—and they had a penchant for funny nicknames.

In Ephraim's Humor, Lucille Butler writes that of the 1,000 people who lived in Ephraim in 1900, 350 of them—primarily men—had nicknames. The received wisdom is that nicknames were needed to identify individuals in a place shot through with identical, patronymic names like Peterson, Jensen, Anderson and Rasmussen. What the received wisdom fails to address is the fact that nicknames were not evident in Denmark, nor were they characteristic of any other Utah town settled by Scandinavians. This story illustrates how a paucity of surnames might have spawned the need for nicknames:

An LDS Church official traveled from Salt Lake City to attend a conference in Ephraim. He was unacquainted with the lack of variety in surnames, and during the meeting, he called upon Brother Peterson to rise. All the men present, with the exception of two small boys toward the back of the hall, stood up. "No, no!" protested the churchman. "I meant Brother Peter Peterson." Whereupon three of the men sat down.

According to the History of Sanpete County published by Utah State Historical Society, nicknames drew on professions ("Painter Hansen"), prominent physical attributes ("Grin Billy"), or a colorful—preferably embarrassing—incident ("Bear Hans" Hendrickson). The provenance of others like "Brazilian Blacksmith" Jensen, "Scottie Water-eye" Christensen, and "Absolutely" Mortensen were more obscure. Not many women had nicknames, but "Hilda Bear Hans" was "Bear Hans" Hendrickson's daughter, and "Peggy Anderson" had a prosthetic leg. A nickname often replaced a person's given name to a point that the original was unneeded as this story suggests:

A handful of Ephraim elders occupied a "wise bench" on Main Street each morning. One day, a stranger stopped to inquire after a Jacob Jensen. No one sitting on the bench could help, but the stranger persisted. "I have his address. He lives in the South Ward, four blocks east of Main Street. Are you sure you don't know Jacob Jensen?" Jake Butcher, one of the old-timers idling on the bench, suddenly straightened up, scratched his head, and said, "Hell, that's me!"

Many of the humorous anecdotes in circulation in Ephraim had mildly rebellious overtones. That meant the prevailing authority, namely the LDS Church, was the target of good-natured ribbing. This story, narrated by a Mormon bishop—the most powerful figure in the community in the 19th century—shows that that those in authority did not take themselves too seriously:

"One time after I had been in the hotel telling stories to the Lion's Club, I met Sister Swenson. She said, 'Bishop Peterson, have you been in there?'

I said, 'Yes, Sister Swenson.'

'Hmmmm, did you know who was in there when you went there?'

I said, 'Yes, Sister Swenson.'

'Will you please answer me one question?'

'I will try,' I said.

She said, 'Are you a Lion, bishop?'

I said, 'There ain't any other kind.'

References to the problematic "Vord of Visdom" are part of the humorous folk canon. This story is typical:

"Brodders and sisters," began a Danish man, getting to his feet in church one Sunday. "I do not drink coffee. That iss for the yentiles. I do not drink tea," he continued, with a proper note of compassion for those unfortunates who might be steeped in the same, "That iss for the yentiles!" He gazed about. Everyone seemed properly impressed. "I do not use tobacco!" He waited for rhetorical effect after mention of this sinful item. "That iss for the yentiles! I do not drink ..." he paused long and dramatically before referring to the Devil's brew, "... liquor!" Then he said, "That iss for the yentiles."

As the man took his seat amid murmurs of approval, another Danish brother popped to his feet. "Brodders and sisters," he said querulously. "Vy iss it that all the good tings shall be for the yentiles?"

My father didn't leave the "good tings" for the "yentiles." His name was Roger Rasmuson, but his nickname was Pete. He was so well known as Pete that we put it in the headline of his obituary. Although he liked to watch conference on television, he never went to church. However, he was a good violinist and performed at LDS funerals. On one such occasion, he was seated in the front of the chapel, near the piano, facing the congregation. In acknowledging those sitting behind the podium, the presiding official introduced him as "Bishop Rasmuson." The service dragged on interminably, and by the end, he craved a cigarette. As the audience rose after the benediction, he ducked out a side door, made for the parking lot and lit a Camel. The mourners were no doubt startled as they emerged from the church to encounter Bishop Rasmuson having a smoke.