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When I was in Utah, I found myself consciously avoiding the term "Mormon," in favor of "LDS." While I understand the term "LDS" means "Latter Day Saint," what I don't know is either the provance or connotation of the term 'Mormon.'

So, first off, why and how did the term "Mormon" come denote members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, and secondly, is it at all offensive to use the term?

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Somewhat related: a meta question on Judaism.SE. –  Jon Ericson May 31 '12 at 21:41
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up vote 27 down vote accepted

The term was originally used as a way to separate Latter-Day Saints from other Christians, due to their belief in the Book of Mormon as well as the Bible. (Much like the term "Christian", which was first used by Jews in the early Apostolic period to distinguish this sect of Judaism, who believed that Christ had already come, from the more respectable, mainstream Jews.)

(EDIT: Because this apparently confused someone, I'm using the word "Christ" in the original, literal meaning here. Christos is the literal Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah, and was used as a title rather than a name at that time.)

In the early days of the church, the term commonly used by LDS members to refer to each other was "saints". (This can be seen throughout the Doctrine & Covenants, a collection of modern-day revelations regarding the church received by Joseph Smith and his successors, and in surviving letters from the period.) But again like the term "Christian," Mormons ended up adopting the term once it became ubiquitous.

The church currently sponsors the well-known Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and runs an official outreach site at www.mormon.org, so it's safe to say that it's not considered offensive, although the official name of the church does not contain the word and it's considered proper to use the full name, or simply "Latter-Day Saints," in any sort of formal context.

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An additional resource about the use of the name of the Church is the the Church's official policy about it: mormonnewsroom.org/style-guide -- which basically says: "While the term 'Mormon Church' has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use ... 'Mormon' is correctly used in proper names such as the Book of Mormon, Mormon Tabernacle Choir ... or when used as an adjective ... The term 'Mormonism' is acceptable in describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to the [LDS Church]." –  Matt May 30 '12 at 17:42
    
Thought you might be interested to know that there is some evidence, although shaky, that early Christians were called Muslim before Islam started. –  fredsbend Feb 19 '13 at 11:44
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Just to perhaps clarify one point in Mason Wheeler's answer:

The word "Mormon" comes from the title of LDS primary scripture, the "Book of Mormon". "Mormon" is the name of a prophet who is a central character in that book.

I'm tempted to say that the fact that the word is the name of one of their faith's leading prophets should mean that there would be no reason for LDS folks to find it offensive. But I suppose that isn't necessarily so. What makes one word for something offensive and another not is a mysterious and complex thing.

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As @Nathan mentioned, the boundary between regular and "offensive" (or at least derogatory) lies in the context in which the term "Mormon" lies. –  Matt Jun 4 '12 at 0:59
    
Personally, I'm sure that there are many words someone could call me that if said matter-of-factly as a descriptive term, I would accept without a second thought, but if said between obscenities and insults, I would take as an insult. –  Jay Jun 4 '12 at 5:14
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I know a very prominent Mormon family in Washington state (where I live). The father is a county Precinct Committee Officer for the Republican party and an Usher at their church. I am good friends with them, and have spoken to them about their faith a few times. In my conversations with them, they indicated that the term is neither offensive or condescending if used in the proper context. If there is a cynical tone to a phase such as "oh, he's a Mormon," then of course it could be offensive. If, however, you are merely using the term as a matter-of-fact to easily identify their religious preference, it is not construed as a negative connotation.

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The LDS church tends to waffle a bit on whether or not the term is appropriate. Leaders of the church often teach members to not use the term. But then, at other times, the term is used by leaders of the church. Consider the recent "I'm a Mormon" campaign. If the leadership of the church found the term to be legitimately offensive, then it seems strange that they would willingly brand themselves as such in a nationwide recruitment campaign.

As a former Mormon and former full-time missionary for the LDS faith, I can state that the term is used regularly within groups of Mormons themselves. We never shied away from the term, and regularly introduced ourselves as such when serving as a missionary. There are some who avoid the term, but I would say that they are in the minority. You'll be fine using the term.

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Hey @ViperBailey you kind of left this hanging :) I removed the partially complete last scentence, but feel free to come back and edit your post if you want to finish off with something. –  Caleb Jun 4 '12 at 12:32
    
Haha... it's true. I think I got up to check the door or something. Then, when I returned, I just clicked save. Whoops! –  Viper Bailey Jun 4 '12 at 15:31
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This topic has already been very thoroughly answered, but I just found this in the LDS Church Handbook which seems instructive, so I thought I'd quote it here:

Section 21.1.34

Referring to the Church and Its Members

As the Church grows across boundaries, cultures, and languages, the use of its revealed name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see D&C 115:4), is increasingly important in the responsibility of the Church and its members to proclaim the name of the Savior throughout all the world. Accordingly, references to the Church should include its full name whenever possible. Following an initial reference to the full name of the Church, the contractions “the Church” or “the Church of Jesus Christ” are acceptable.

Referring to the Church as “the Mormon Church,” “the Latter-day Saints Church,” or “the LDS Church” is discouraged.

When referring to Church members, it is preferable to use the phrase “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” As a shortened reference, “Latter-day Saints” is preferred and “Mormons” is acceptable.

The word Mormon will continue to be used in proper names like the Book of Mormon and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It will also continue to be used as an adjective in phrases such as “Mormon pioneers.” In addition, it may be necessary to use the word Mormon to identify the Church as it is commonly known in some countries.

Interestingly, the use of the term "LDS Church" is discouraged, and on some occasions, the term "Mormon ..." is quite acceptable.

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Elder M. Russel Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently spoke of the use of "Mormon" vs the full name of the church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/following-up

It is correct to use the term "mormon" except when referring to the church itself. It is the church of Jesus Christ, not "Mormon".

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Welcome! This is a good answer. But for the sake of preservation, can you quote the relevant part of that article in your answer? –  Matt 2 days ago
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