A So-called "Post"

In Angela C.’s hilarious post “Mormon Jargon 2” at BCC, this is her entry for “so-called”:

So-called (adj.) I sneer at whatever word follows this adjective

It seems like this is a term GAs use fairly often to indicate disapproval, as Angela observes. Elder Oaks, for example, last October, used it at least a couple of times (maybe even three?) in his talk “No Other Gods” (although only one occurrence made it into the written version). I thought it might be interesting to look back at who uses “so-called” most often, what they’re disapproving of, and whether there is any trend over time in its usage.

I looked up uses of “so-called” in the Ensign using Google. My search string was this: “so called” site:lds.org/ensign. I found 279 articles with a total of 319 uses.

Usage over time

Here’s a graph showing how often “so-called” has been used in the Ensign since it began publication in 1971.

so called in ensign 1971-2014This is really surprising! I wouldn’t have guessed that “so-called” was being used less often in recent years. To double check this, I looked at the Corpus of General Conference talks, which has data all the way back to 1851. Here’s a graph using their data. (Note that I used data only for “so-called” and not for “so called,” which the corpus treats differently, but this makes little difference, as “so called” is used far less often than “so-called,” particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries.)

so called in general conference 1851-2013The pattern over the past 40 years looks largely the same: a big decline. It’s nice to get confirmation, but this similarity shouldn’t be surprising, since the Ensign includes General Conference talks.

I really have no idea what caused this recent decline, or what caused any of the ups and downs. For an outside comparison, here’s a graph from the Google Books n-gram viewer covering 1850 to 2008:

The recent decline is maybe similar, but in general the ups and downs in the Conference data (for example the trough in the middle of the 20th century followed by the peak in the 60’s) really aren’t mirrored in the Google Books data.

Usage by person

The remainder of my analyses use the Ensign data rather than the longer-term General Conference data.

Which writers (or speakers) in the Ensign use “so-called” most often? It turns out that President Hinckley is the runaway champion, accounting for about 12% of all uses in the Ensign. I’m not controlling for his number of talks and articles, though, so it’s hard to say if he liked to say “so-called” a lot or if he just gave a lot of talks. One suggestion that perhaps he really was fond of “so-called” comes from a post I wrote last year, where I found that he he had personally given over 6% of all talks given in Conference since 1971. If he were responsible for a similar proportion of all Ensign articles, then 12% would be higher than would be expected based on his number of talks and articles alone.

Here’s a list of everyone who has at least five “so-called” uses in the Ensign. Note that if Person A quotes Person B as saying “so-called,” I count this for Person B, not for Person A.

Person “So-called” count
Gordon B. Hinckley  38
Thomas S. Monson  16
Dallin H. Oaks  14
Boyd K. Packer  11
Spencer W. Kimball  10
Ezra Taft Benson  8
Robert L. Simpson  8
David B. Haight  6
L. Tom Perry  6
Marion G. Romney  6
Richard C. Edgley  6
S. Kent Brown & C. Wilfred Griggs  6
Harold B. Lee  5
James E. Faust  5
Joseph B. Wirthlin  5
N. Eldon Tanner  5

It looks like it wasn’t just in this last Conference, but more generally Elder Oaks is a fan of “so-called,” as he scores highest of anyone who hasn’t been President of the Church.

Also, I should explain who S. Kent Brown and C. Wilfred Griggs are, since they’re the only non-GAs on the list. They were BYU religion professors who collaborated on some Ensign articles in the 1970s. Here are the two in which they got their six uses of “so-called” (although their uses were of the more conventional type, where they’re informing the reader what something is called, rather than the sneering variety that Angela identified).

Usage by target

This is probably the most interesting question: just what are Church leaders sneering at with “so-called”? Unfortunately, I was only able to categorize about half of the uses. But, for what it’s worth, here are the categories that got at least five mentions with “so-called”:

Target Example Count
Worldly knowledge/education/experts Many so-called experts give advice for the body—without thought for the spirit. (Russell M. Nelson)  28
Christians/Christian churches/Christianity Since there were at the time it was organized, as there are today, many other so-called Christian churches, the question “What was the need of another church?” is often asked. (Marion G. Romney)  19
Rights/freedoms/needs If you follow that pattern, you will not be preoccupied with the so-called needs of women. (Boyd K. Packer)  16
Friends If your so-called friends urge you to do anything you know to be wrong, you be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone. (Thomas S. Monson)  15
Gay people/gay marriage People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians. (Gordon B. Hinckley)  8
Happiness/pleasure/fun But as he grew in personal righteousness, he gained a healing peace that was far more tangible, complete, and enjoyable than the so-called “happiness” he had sought. (Victor L. Brown)  7
Sins/temptations large or small Satan takes us an inch at a time, deceiving us as to the consequences of so-called minor sins until he captures us in major transgressions. (Richard C. Edgley)  7
Social class related In allocating funds, we have not distinguished between so-called affluent wards and so-called poor wards. (Gordon B. Hinckley)  7
Pornography This definition applies to so-called “adult” magazines, to at least portions of many motion pictures, and to the use of children for pornographic purposes. (Richard P. Lindsay)  6
New morality I would recommend that you go through your record albums and set aside those records that promote the so-called new morality, the drug, or the hard rock culture. (Boyd K. Packer)  5

It looks like Ensign writers are not fans of worldly knowledge, other Christians (although this type of usage has declined noticeably since the 70’s), rights, or friends. This last one surprised me the most: there are all these references to the importance of not listening to your so-called friends when they try to lure you away with drugs and porn. Oh well, I’m sure there are lots of positive references to friends that I’m just ignoring in this study.

If you’re interested, there’s a little more discussion of targets of “so-called” labels at KC Kern’s post from several years ago at Mormon Matters. (His post was actually the original inspiration for this post. Now you know how very slowly I work. 🙂 )

Usage by type

One other aspect of usage of “so-called” that I thought might be interesting to look at is how often it’s used as a sneer, versus how often it’s used straight, that is, to just alert the reader that this is a thing they might not have heard of. I actually ended up sorting the uses of “so-called” into five different categories. I’m less sure of these than I am the target categories above, but here’s what I came up with. Since there are so few categories, I’ve put the result in a pie chart.

so called in ensign by type

I’ll try to explain the categories a little bit more with some examples. Category A is for cases where the writer is warning the reader that the thing they’re referring to may be called by this label, but it’s really just masquerading. Here’s an example from Gordon B. Hinckley:

Legal restraints against deviant moral behavior are eroding under legislative enactments and court opinions. This is done in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of choice in so-called personal matters. But the bitter fruit of these so-called freedoms has been enslavement to debauching habits and behavior that leads only to destruction.

He’s saying that the things people call personal matters aren’t really personal, and that what they call freedoms aren’t really freedoms.

Category B is for the straight usage of “so-called.” Here’s an example from Hugh Nibley.

A Book of Breathings text that closely matches the Joseph Smith version (and there are precious few of them) is the so-called Kerasher Book of Breathings.

He’s just letting the reader know that there’s this text that’s called the Kerasher Book of Breathings.

Category C is for cases where the writer is telling the reader that the thing they’re referring to is labeled this way, but it’s mislabeled. The difference between Category C and Category A is that in Category A uses, the writer implies that there is malicious intent in the mislabeling: something is pretended to be something it isn’t. Category C is for simple mislabeling errors. Here’s an example from Gordon B. Hinckley:

The so-called Mormon code of health, widely praised in these days of cancer and heart research, is in reality a revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1833 as a “Word of Wisdom” from the Lord.

He’s not saying anyone is trying to deviously label the Word of Wisdom as the Mormon code of health for some nefarious purpose. He’s simply pointing out that he sees it as more a revelation than a health code.

Category D is for uses where it seems like the writer is trying to distance him- or herself from the term. It’s like they’re saying, “I’m sorry to use this label, but if I use it, you’ll understand me.” Here’s an example from H. Burke Peterson:

Have you the courage to keep out of your home television shows and videotapes that are filled with suggestive sexual conversation and even visual experiences? I think one of the subtle dangers that we face are the so-called “soaps.”

He isn’t saying that the soaps are pretending to be soaps (Category A) or that they are mislabeled soaps (Category C). He seems to be marking “soaps” with “so-called” to make clear that he’s aware that it seems like an oddly colloquial term for a GA to be using, but he’s using it so we’ll understand him.

Category E is for uses where the writer is trying to distance him- or herself from the thing the label refers to (rather than just from the label itself as in Category D). Here’s an example from James E. Faust:

Any alternatives to the legal and loving marriage between a man and a woman are helping to unravel the fabric of human society. I am sure this is pleasing to the devil. The fabric I refer to is the family. These so-called alternative lifestyles must not be accepted as right, because they frustrate God’s commandment for a life-giving union of male and female within a legal marriage as stated in Genesis.

He seems to be distancing himself from the idea of gay marriage rather than just from the term “alternative lifestyles” here.

Anyway, like I said above, I’m not terribly confident that these categories are actually distinguishable enough to be usable, but in case you find value in them, you might find the results in the pie chart interesting. I think the sneering type of reference Angela identified matches up best with Categories A, D, and E.

Interesting examples

Finally, let me share a few unusual cases I found while looking through all the usages of “so-called” in the Ensign.

  • The largest number of “so-called” uses I found in a single article was five by Elder Oaks in his 1987 article discussing the Mark Hoffman fiasco. I ended up classifying them all as informational (Category B), so it doesn’t seem like he was using “so-called” to sneer at things. But I do wonder if, given his multiple uses in his talk about gay marriage, Elder Oaks’s level of irritation might not be measurable by how often he says “so-called.” Perhaps I should be happy that I haven’t yet heard him refer to “so-called Ordain Women.”
  • President Packer has a funny use in a talk on family history, where he tells people “You can do this work. You can do it without becoming a so-called “expert” in it.” I think this is kind of hilarious. It’s like he couldn’t bear to use the word “expert” without reflexively attaching “so-called” to it. He had lost track of the fact that he wasn’t talking about a particular worldly expert that he needed to express contempt for; he was just talking about people hypothetically becoming experts at family history. Either that or he got carried away using find-and-replace. (But then, it was 1977, so that seems unlikely.)
  • President Kimball actually put a “so-called” in a temple dedicatory prayer. Seriously! It was for the Washington D.C. temple. Here’s what he said:

We remember the devastation of a flood which was to cleanse the earth from pollution of men, and now we see all the sins of the past being portrayed before our eyes again, when people worship the permissiveness of so-called freedoms, walking blindly into the traps which must terminate in destructive calamities. Bless them, Father, that they may return to thee in total righteousness.

I look forward to reading your so-called “comments” on this post!


  1. Back when I was participating on New Order and Disaffected Mormon message boards, the “so called” became an adjective assigned to the church itself. TSCC for short.

  2. Once I was reading some old conference talks, and it seemed like every other speaker mentioned “lip service.” I think “so called” is just a catch phrase of the day, and don’t attach any significance to its use.

  3. My impression is that Joseph Fielding Smith used this phrase with great frequency. The two big peaks loosely correspond to his ordination and death, though certainly he can’t be solely responsible.

  4. I’ve suspected your summary without any of the quantitative bits and bobs to back it up. Great post!

  5. I like all the categories of so-calling. There was heavy use by Brigham Young of “‘Mormonism’ so-called,” with Mormonism in quotes. Also, “Mormonism,” without the so-called, but having the same effect with the quote marks in the text rendering. Example:

    “Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.”

  6. Wow, Martha! That’s weirdly awesome, or awesomely weird. I never even thought of “so-called” showing up there, but it totally makes sense that it would.

    John and Ben, thanks for the pointers on previous GAs who said “so-called” a lot. I’m not even sure how I would be familiar with it, but I’ve definitely heard the “Mormonism, so-called” phrasing that you cite somewhere before, John.

    naomi, thanks!

    Rachel, for some reason it makes me think of the Austin Powers movies, but maybe there it’s just air quotes and no “so-called.”

    Ann, I totally should have included that in the post! I swear I had seen that abbreviation twenty times before I finally figured out what it was for.

  7. Those so-called special witnesses with their so-called timeless values…

    My favorite use of the phrase was by my stake president when he said “so-called traditional families.”

  8. I’ve always maintained that GBH’s use of “so-called gays” is Class D: distancing himself from what he perceived to be a colloquial term. I’m 2-3 generations removed from President Hinckley, and even I grew up having a “gay old time” with the Flintstones, having classmates named Gay, hearing Gilbert O’Sullivan sing that he was “cheerful, bright, and gay,” and singing in Primary about how gay we would be when Grandpa visited. When I first started hearing “gay” in the contemporary sense, it sounded weird and colloquial, as if we were referring to people as “cheerfuls” or “light-hearteds.”

    I would think that for someone nearing 90, the term gay would still feel colloquial, a slangy word not quite suitable for serious forum like general conference. But he knew that “homosexuals,” though a more formal term to him, would sound harsh to others. So he compromised by using the acceptable term “gay” but marking it as colloquial.

  9. Ziff, this is really impressive and fun. It also makes me think about how I may sometimes use language in ways that marginalize.

  10. This post has been nominated for a 2014 Brodie Award in the category of “Best Original Research Regarding Mormonism”. Please go here if you would like to vote for it! 😀


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