Undergraduate linguistics student Auna Nygaard describes her research on “missionary slang” and how it illuminates the relationship between language, culture, and the human experience.
Nygaard developed this research as part of a course on sociolinguistics, which is the study of society’s effect on language. Sociolinguists are interested in issues such as what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate language use in different contexts and how language differs between cultures. It turns out that the slang used by missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unique in a number of ways.
“It’s partially regional, because a lot of missionaries come from the same place, but it’s obviously international,” Nygaard explains. “And you have slang that’s operating in one of the few places where you’re explicitly told not to use slang for an extended period of time. It’s also really interesting because slang will last through years and years of missionaries, even though there’s a very high turnover.”
In her findings, Nygaard points out that slang has a central role in arbitrating what attitudes and behaviors are considered acceptable or unacceptable. Moral principles such as diligence and obedience are prominent in Latter-day Saint missionary culture, which is reflected in the language by the development of value-based slang. For example, expressions such as “apos” (short for “apostate”), “diso” (short for “disobedient”) or Laman/Lemuel (referencing characters in the Book of Mormon) were used to stigmatize laziness or disobedience to mission rules. On the other hand, expressions like “bots”, “clankers”, or “robocomps” were used to stigmatize missionaries perceived as stiff and robotic in their adherence to the rules.
Other terms were developed as shorthand for common elements of missionary life, such as “pros” for proselyting clothes and “shotgunning” or “whitewashing” for when all missionaries were transferred out of an area and replaced with new ones. The slang that Nygaard documented runs the gamut from familiar (such as the use of “Pharisee” to denote a hypocritical person) to completely unrecognizable for the uninitiated (“apocalypse husband,” “zone monkey,” “transferslapped,” etc.).
“You have to have language that codifies your experience when you don’t have it somewhere else,” Nygaard explains. “It’s impossible to get fully rid of, and…that echoes that it has a really essential role in articulating your experience in a way that nothing else can.”
Nygaard’s abstract was accepted at the 2022 American Dialect Society conference, where she presented last month. “I turned in this paper as one of my final papers for my sociolinguistics class, and my professor [Dr. Joey Stanley] told me, ‘This reads like an actual paper, so we should move forward and have this be an actual paper.’”
“If you’re interested in getting involved in research, just find a topic that you want to look into, start brainstorming how it works, and I’ve found that when you go to professors with a structure…they’ll help walk you through the process. It really just comes down to hitting the pavement and going.” ∎
Note: If you recently served a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have some of your own slang to contribute, you can participate in the study by clicking here (external link to a Qualtrics survey).