WNW: Pioneer Day Edition

Hooray for Word Nerd Wednesday! It’s back this week, and as I debated what topic to cover, I remembered that last week, Utahns celebrated a somewhat Mormon holiday: Pioneer Day.

It’s marks the day when the first Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley back in 1847. 

Except that we tend to gloss over the fact that the first pioneers actually arrived two days earlier, and that the 24th is when Brigham Young first showed up. By then, men were already plowing fields and building shelters.

The 24th was the day that Brigham, who was very ill, was driven in a wagon. It was backed up to the valley so he could raise himself up on his elbow. He’d seen the valley in a vision, so when he looked out, he confirmed, “This is the right place. Drive on.”

The real story is a bit contrary to the image we tend to have of him standing there, pounding his walking stick into the ground and declaring (as the park is named), “This is the place.” 

(Adding the word right sort of messes with the rhythm of the phrase anyway, right?) 

(And the fact that dozens of people were already there, making it their home, sort of showed that they knew they’d arrived in the right place, but still…)

Hey, he was their leader, so he got to pick the date for the holiday.

On Pioneer Day, Salt Lake City puts on a huge parade, but few people get off work (my husband is one of the lucky ones). In honor of the day (I’m not quite a week late; give me a break), I thought I’d list some words and phrases for WNW that tend to be Mormon-isms and, to a lesser extent, Utah-isms.

My fellow Utah and/or Mormon readers (and friends of Utahns and Mormons) are welcome to add more to the comments!

Deseret
You’ll find this word all over Utah, particularly in names of businesses, and you’ll find it in the history books. Where you won’t find it is in the dictionary. (I checked my favorite, the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Dictionary.com and Merriam Webster.) The word comes from The Book of Mormon and refers to honeybees. Utah was also original called Deseret, and the term is sometimes found in poems and hymns to refer to the Church as a group. More on that below.

Beehive
Another word you’ll find all over Utah, which is fitting, as Utah is known as The Beehive State. The Beehive emblem is found on all state highway signs and elsewhere. Early pioneers viewed the honeybee as an industrious, never-lazy worker laboring for the benefit of the hive. In pioneer terms, that meant a person working tirelessly for the community. The Mormon pioneers viewed the honeybee as an example of what they should strive to be like. You start to see why Utah was first named after the honeybee.

But there’s more. Youth programs in the Church are split by gender, and the boys and girls are further split into three groups by age. The youngest group for girls, ages twelve and thirteen, are called (yep) Beehives. I think meaning of the name (and hence the message to strive to work hard for the common good) is a bit lost on today’s generation. But then, the types of goals 21st century girls are expected to reach are totally different from the girls who lived in the late 1800s: they no longer have milk cows or plow fields to earn their medallion.

Mia Maid
This term doesn’t even make sense outside the Church. The closest thing you can find in a dictionary is the acronym for Missing in Action, which is not what this means. It’s the name for the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old young women class.

If I understand correctly, the first part of term, used to be in all caps: MIA Maid. This is because it was an acronym. MIA stood for Mutual Improvement Association, what the youth programs were called collectively. When young men and young women had activities and cultural events together, which was at least weekly, they said they were going to MIA or simply to mutual.

Today, some people still refer to the weekday youth activities as mutual, but I’m betting most of today’s youth have no idea why.

Laurel
Moving up to the oldest group of young women, ages sixteen and seventeen. (At eighteen, or a bit later, typically after high school graduation, young women start attending Relief Society, the women’s organization.)

Of course, the laurel plant was commonly used long ago to create a crown or wreath with which to honor a victor of a competition. (Think the little guy on the Little Caesar’s box.) I think the idea here is for young women to strive to be the best they can be, to earn that laurel wreath. And again, of course, modern girls don’t always know what the term means, and they have very different goals that mark what it means to be an accomplished young woman.

Today, a young woman heading off to college on scholarship may be considered to be accomplished, when that term might have once meant someone who can darn a mean sock.

Dixie
This one is specific to Utah. Outside the state, Dixie refers to the southern states of the U.S., the ones involved in the U.S. Civil War. And that’s actually where the name came from.

After being driven out of their homes, with family members killed, and otherwise being persecuted, the Mormons in Utah wanted to separate themselves from other groups and be as self-sufficient as possible. When the Civil War broke out, they needed an alternate source of cotton. Brigham Young sent scouts south to see if growing cotton might be viable down there. It was. (The area was also a miserable place to live. Some early settlers quipped that the devil himself would be quite comfortable there.) And thus the hot, sunny area was named Utah’s Dixie. There’s even a Dixie State College in the area.


I could go on and on, but I’ll end with a phrase that has become so common in prayer that it rolls right off the tongue and therefore has become a bit of a joke: the request when saying grace at a meal to bless the food to “nourish and strengthen our bodies.” Some people then add, “and do us the good that we need.”

This prayer is often uttered right before teens at mutual snarf down cookies or donuts.

Therefore, I’ve enjoyed the twist The Cultural Hall podcast (er, show—right, Richie?) has put on it, something you’ll hear at the end of many episodes: “Please bless the sugar out of this crap.”


If this kind of thing interests you, check out THIS WORD NERD WEDNESDAY POST as well as THIS ONE, in which we look more deeply at Mormon words and phrases.

And be sure to check out the WNW post about how Utahns (and, frankly, a lot of people) pronounce mountain, and this other one about another Utah quirk: pronouncing a short E sound (as in well) when the vowel is technically a long A followed by the letter L (as in whale, which often sounds like well in Utah).

And for even more word nerdiness, be sure to subscribe to the GUMshoes podcast on iTunes. I co-host with Luisa Perkins, where we delve into what we call GUM issues: ones involving GRAMMAR, USAGE, and MECHANICS.

Live today: An episode all about how Seinfeld has influenced the vernacular! This episode is SO MUCH FUN, people!




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