"O Ye Fair Ones":
An Additional Note on the Meaning of the Name Nephi
An earlier Insights article noted a possible wordplay1 in the first verse of the Book of Mormon that provides internal textual evidence that the name Nephi derives from the Egyptian word nfr.2 While nfr denotes “good, fine, goodly”3 of quality, it also signifies “beautiful, fair”4 of appearance. Assuming that at least some senses of the Egyptian word passed into Nephite language and culture, this second sense of nfr may have influenced Nephite self-perception. Several Book of Mormon passages evidence the affiliation.
If the name Nephi can be translated “good, goodly, beautiful, fair,” then the term Nephites might be substantively rendered “goodly ones” or “fair ones.” Interestingly, Mormon, when lamenting the vast scene of slaughtered Nephites following the battles at Cumorah, addressed them as such:
O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! (Mormon 6:17—19)5
Mormon uses the expression O ye fair ones in anaphora (i.e., a literary device in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of consecutive clauses),6 and the word fair occurs four times in his lament, his rhetoric clearly suggesting that the quality of being “fair” once distinguished the Nephites from every other people.
Another passage demonstrates an etymological connection between Nephites and “fair ones.” Following the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth, Mormon records that the Lamanites, apart from those who were Gadianton robbers, underwent a change in appearance, effectively becoming Nephites:
And their young men and their daughters became exceedingly fair, and they were numbered among the Nephites, and they were called Nephites. (3 Nephi 2:16)
Here a wordplay on fair and Nephites occurs in epistrophe (i.e., repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses). The parallelism of the phrasing further suggests the approximation of Nephites to “fair ones.”
The language of a third passage suggests the same connection. Mormon reports that following Christ’s appearance, the people of Nephi (Nephites and Lamanites together) had all become a “fair and delightsome people”:
And now, behold, it came to pass that the people of Nephi did wax strong, and did multiply exceedingly fast, and became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people. (4 Nephi 1:10)
The phrase fair and delightsome stands in stark contrast to descriptions such as “filthy” and “loathsome,” as the Lamanites are often described during periods of degeneracy and unbelief (compare 1 Nephi 12:23; 2 Nephi 5:22; Mormon 5:15). It must be noted that Book of Mormon prophets invariably taught that being “fair and delightsome” has everything to do with righteous living and very little to do with perceived cultural or racial superiority (see 1 Nephi 1:17:33-40; Jacob 3; Helaman 15).
1. “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.” This subject is treated at length in Matthew L. Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi’s Name,” Insights 22/11 (2002): 2.
2. See John Gee, “A Note on the Name Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 189—91. It is possible that the connection consists of folk etymology rather than cognates.
3. Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1999), 131.
5. The Hebrew verb meaning “to fall” (naphal) resembles the Egyptian term for “fair,” and the use of the Hebrew term here may be due to folk etymology. See also 1 Nephi 13:15 and 3 Nephi 9:2.
6. See Donald W. Parry, The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted according to Parallelistic Patterns (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 445.