Mormon Culture and Jargon: Mormon Missionaries (Part 2)

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(This is part 2 of a 2 part series. Read part 1 here.)

The mission administrative organization has its own complex and highly developed jargon. First of all, each mission, which consists of anywhere from 20 to 200 (or sometimes more) missionaries, is located geographically within an ‘area’, consisting of many missions, which are overseen by an ‘Area President.’ As stated previously, the mission is overseen by a ‘Mission President’, who reports to the Area President. Two highly motivated and experienced missionaries are chosen by the Mission President to be ‘Assistants to the President’ (often abbreviated ‘Assistants’), to help him in fulfilling his administrative duties. The mission is subdivided into ‘zones’, which are overseen by missionaries designated as ‘Zone Leaders’, who report to the Assistants to the President. The zones are further subdivided into ‘districts’, made up of 2 to 5 companionships, overseen by ‘District Leaders’, who report to the Zone Leaders. At the most fundamental level, districts are divided into ‘areas’ (yes, this is the second use of ‘area’), with one companionship assigned to each area. Nightly, each companionship ‘calls in numbers’ (a report of the work done that day) to their District Leader. The District Leaders call in to the Zone Leaders their district’s information, and Zone Leaders call in to the Assistants, who then report to the President. Typically ‘District Meetings’ are held weekly, ‘Zone Meetings’ are monthly, ‘Zone Conferences’ (where multiple zones meet together) are held once a transfer, and ‘Mission Conferences’ are held yearly, all focused on teaching the missionaries to become better at their missionary work. The aforementioned ‘meetings’ are usually a couple hours in length, while the ‘conferences’ are usually all-day affairs.

Missionaries spend their days teaching the ‘lessons’ – formerly known as, and still frequently referred to as, ‘discussions’ – which refers to a set of 5 specific, preplanned lessons on the Church. They teach these lessons mostly to either ‘investigators’ (people that are not members, but are willing to learn about the Church) with the goal of ‘baptizing’ them (performing the ‘ordinance’ or rite that would make them an official member of the Church), or ‘less-active’ members (an adjective applied to members of the Church that do not participate, and do not have a desire to participate, in anything related to the Church; also used as a noun to refer to such persons, e.g. ‘Let’s go see that one less-active.’), in hopes of ‘re-activating’ them. (The commonly used verb, ‘to re-activate’, is an optimistic take on what might be considered the more correct verb, simply ‘to activate’.) Particularly promising investigators are termed ‘golden’: “Sister Jones has read the whole Book of Mormon and wants to get baptized next week. She is golden!”; whereas investigators that do not seem to have moved forward in their learning about the Church for an extended period of time are termed ‘eternal investigators’: “We have been teaching Mr. Smith for 3 months, and he still isn’t ready to get baptized. Eternal investigators are frustrating!”

Missionaries are encouraged not to use language that is considered by the Church or the Mission President to be vulgar, informal, or negative. This has given rise to a myriad of mission-specific euphemisms or replacement words, many of which use the word ‘less’ as a prefix meaning ‘not’. These include words such as: ‘less-effective’ (an adjective meaning ineffective or a waste of time), the previously mentioned ‘less-active’, ‘semi-active’ (used the same as ‘less-active’, but refers to members that have some interest in the Church), ‘you Elders’ or ‘you Sisters’ (used as a replacement second person plural pronoun because ‘you guys’ or ‘y’all’ is considered informal), flip or fetch (euphemisms for another word that starts with an ‘f’; also replace other words that are themselves euphemisms, but are nonetheless considered to be vulgar by the Mission President, such as crap), among many others.

The missionary subculture of the Mormon Church has also developed a ‘missionary slang’, which is discouraged by mission leadership among current full-time missionaries, but is used freely among the regular membership of the Church, usually in reference to their missions. Some examples include the following: referring to the President as the ‘prez’; referring to the Assistants as ‘apes’ (a slight modification of the acronym for Assistant to the President: AP); referring to the Zone Leaders as ‘zonies’; referring to missionaries that are new in the field as ‘green’ or ‘greenies’; referring to one’s companion as ‘comp’; referring to missionary exchanges as ‘splits’; referring to the top leadership of the Church, which are collectively referred to as ‘General Authorities’, as GAs (an alphabetism, pronounced gee-eihs); etc. Although an effort is made by mission leadership to suppress the use of such slang terms, over time the slang use has persisted and even spread from mission to mission throughout the whole world.

There are two possible outcomes at the end of a missionary’s service: a missionary can receive an ‘honorable release’, or just a ‘release’. ‘Release’ refers to the end of the calling to be a missionary, and it is honorable if the missionary has completed the term of service usually required, or if the missionary is ‘leaving the field’ for medical reasons. All other circumstances lead to a ‘release’. Once released, the former missionary is referred to as a ‘returned missionary’, or an ‘RM’ (an alphabetism). Being an RM is a considerable honor within the Church, and a man’s being an RM is a marriage requirement for many women in the Church. Honorably released RMs usually spend considerable time once they are home going to various church meetings in their area, giving a ‘homecoming talk’, in which they frequently recount exceptional experiences that occurred during their missions, and invite the membership of the Church to participate in missionary work. It has been noted that the phrase, ‘the best two years of my life’, is used in every homecoming talk, almost without exception, although the phrase ‘so far’ is sometimes self-consciously appended to the end.

One of the most remarkable things about Mormon jargon and culture is that it is amazingly similar in every country throughout the world. Since the Mormon Church began in 1830, more than 1 million Mormon missionaries have gone to all parts of the world, most of them from the United States, taking with them both their language and their culture. Nearly all of the English Mormon jargon, only a small fraction of which has been mentioned in this paper, has been adopted by Mormons in every culture and language in which they exist. In languages where equivalent words exist, those are sometimes used, but more often than not the English jargon is adopted in its English form. This is true of the missionary subculture, as well as of Mormon culture in general, and it has led many members to exclaim that they feel at home no matter where in the world they attend a Mormon meeting. The Mormon Church provides a fascinating look into the subject of language variation in a social context that transcends all geographical boundaries.

4 Responses to “Mormon Culture and Jargon: Mormon Missionaries (Part 2)”

  1. CrispyCromar

    Exactly, Sara. You read my writing like a book.

    Anyway, I thought it was interesting enough to post, even though it is not as entertaining as it could be, for the sake of some feigned objectivity.

  2. Rae Wilkie

    You have nice writing, Scott. Interesting subject and informative too! Good Job!