As I've read about the Anti-Nephi-Lehies the past few weeks in my personal scripture study, I was puzzled anew about their choice in a name. Obviously they didn't want to be known as Lamanites any more, rejecting any association with their wicked brethren. But the name always came across as negative toward the Nephites as well. I remembered learning something in Seminary way back when that had helped clarify things, but alas, I could not recall the information.
Amazing what moving can do! I found my old Seminary folder in a box and yes! the paper was in it. The following is from Jeffrey Chadwick, a professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU.
A Proposal for the Meaning of the Name "Anti-Nephi-Lehi"
"In Alma 23 we find that the people converted by the sons of Mosiah no longer wanted to be called Lamanites. They desired a name that distinguished them from their non-believing Lamanite brethren. Verse 17 tells us "that they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies; and they were called by this name and were no longer called Lamanites." An intriguing question over the years has been what is really meant by the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi.
"Sidney B. Sperry believed that the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi meant that the converted Lamanites were now opposed ("anti") to their brethren who lived in the land of "Lehi-Nephi." Hugh Nibley went one better by suggesting that the meaning of "anti" was really "ante," which connotes "being before" or "facing," suggesting that the converted Lamanites were now imitating the Nephites. For various reasons I had never felt comfortable with either of these theories.
"Having done quite a bit of work with Hebrew and Egyptian lately, I decided to apply some principles of those languages to difficult Book of Mormon terms (such as Anti-Nephi-Lehi, Rameumptom, and others) and see what could be learned. The attempt to write "Anti-Nephi-Lehies" in hieroglyphics was most instructive, and suggested a new and simple meaning for the term.
The key was the prefix "anti," which in Egyptian can only be rendered as...a pair of arms with open palms in question mode. The consonant value of [this symbol] is n. This term can be translated a variety of ways, such as anti, opposed, non-existing, never, etc., but the most basic meaning is non or not. The Oxford Universal Dictionary reveals that the English word "anti" not only connotes being opposed to something, but can also act as a simple negator, such as the words non or not.
"Now it seems clear from the text of the Book of Mormon that the "Nephi-Lehi" portion of the new name directly refers to the converted Lamanites, not to the Lamanite land or the Nephite people. For example, in Alma 23:17 the converts (plural) were referred to as Anti-Nephi-Lehies (plural), but in Alma 24:3 a single convert was called Anti-Nephi-Lehi (singular). With all of this in mind, may I suggest that the term Anti-Nephi-Lehi means Non-Nephite-Lehite, and the plural term Anti-Nephi-Lehies means Non-Nephite-Lehites, or in other words Lehites who are not Nephites.
"Remember that the motive for the name change was that the converts no longer wanted to be called Lamanites, a label which was associated with the tradition of a wicked and unbelieving ancestor. But what could the new converts call themselves? Nephites? No, they were not his descendants. The could, however, go one step beyond Laman to their common father Lehi. But to call themselves Lehites might still give the impression they were Nephites, since Lehi and Nephi were always on the same side (opposite Laman) on so many issues. To avoid any confusion the new name Non-Nephite-Lehites (or Anti-Nephi-Lehies) was perfect. It probably sounded a lot better in their language than it does in ours, and less clumsy too. Most of all, it was accurate. They were now, after all, faithful Lehites who were not Nephites."
*Note: I could not figure out how to show the symbol for "anti" so I had to remove it from the writing.