Journal

What’s In a Name? More Than You Can Imagine

by | Jul 26, 2016 | Books

Shakespeare famously said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet;” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2). But we know that names do in fact matter. I have always been fascinated
by different naming customs, and the cycles of name popularity. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, about five generations of American Jewish women, depicts a rather prototypical cycle of Ashkenazi (European) Jewish American naming customs.

The very first Lily leaves Eastern Europe with the name “Laili,” which an Ellis Island official declares unpronounceable. He re-names her “Lily” and she is thrilled to have what she considers an American name. It is the custom among Ashkenazi Jews to name after someone who has died, and so she names her daughter after her own mother, who was named “Malkie.” But that sounds too outdated, not American enough, so she calls her daughter “Molly.” Molly in turn will name her daughter “Lily,” after the first Lily, who has died, and so on through the generations.

In the society at large, we know that names go in cycles. The Mollys, Emmas, Lilys, Sams and Maxes of the early 20th Century became the baby boomer Marcias, Ellens, Lindas, Stewarts and Martins. The 80’s gave us Amanda, Megan, Lindsey and Sean. And now we seem to be back to Emma, Molly and Max.

But immigrants to our shores today often keep the names they were given in their home countries. Or try to. Which brings us to the hundreds of immigrants today known as FNU. There was a Wall Street Journal article by Miriam Jordan in March of 2016 about them. Apparently, these are people who came here from places like Afghanistan and parts of Asia and applied for visas with the only names they had—single, often very long first names. But U.S. immigration forms demand two names, and woe betide the hapless immigrant who leaves a blank. Many report that when they finally receive their visas, they are identified as FNU plus their own first name, often long and seeming to Americans to be last names. Their Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and other identification automatically identify them as FNU, which Americans naturally struggle to pronounce and often assume is some exotic name from a far-off place.

Except it’s not. FNU is the acronym that the government in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom assigns immigrants who specify only one name. And so it turns out that FNU stands for “First Name Unknown.” The article reports the frustrations of FNUs trying to rid themselves of the unwanted acronym. The official red tape is often too much to bear, and some have resigned themselves to waiting until they become citizens and can specify their own name. Or names if necessary!

But one of my favorite naming stories comes via a school teacher in Philadelphia. She had a little girl in her class whom the immigrant mother introduced as “Fah-mah-li.” The teacher commented on what a pretty-sounding name it was and asked what the meaning of it was in her native country. The mother responded that it was an American name, that, in fact, the nurses at the hospital had named her. Confused, the teacher asked her what she meant. The mother replied that when her daughter was born, the nurses immediately put a bracelet on her with her name. Now becoming just a tad suspicious, the teacher asked her how the name was spelled. The proud and delighted mother responded, “F-E-M-A-L-E!”

As the saying goes, “Only in America!”

by different naming customs, and the cycles of name popularity. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, about five generations of American Jewish women, depicts a rather prototypical cycle of Ashkenazi (European) Jewish American naming customs.

The very first Lily leaves Eastern Europe with the name “Laili,” which an Ellis Island official declares unpronounceable. He re-names her “Lily” and she is thrilled to have what she considers an American name. It is the custom among Ashkenazi Jews to name after someone who has died, and so she names her daughter after her own mother, who was named “Malkie.” But that sounds too outdated, not American enough, so she calls her daughter “Molly.” Molly in turn will name her daughter “Lily,” after the first Lily, who has died, and so on through the generations.

In the society at large, we know that names go in cycles. The Mollys, Emmas, Lilys, Sams and Maxes of the early 20th Century became the baby boomer Marcias, Ellens, Lindas, Stewarts and Martins. The 80’s gave us Amanda, Megan, Lindsey and Sean. And now we seem to be back to Emma, Molly and Max.

But immigrants to our shores today often keep the names they were given in their home countries. Or try to. Which brings us to the hundreds of immigrants today known as FNU. There was a Wall Street Journal article by Miriam Jordan in March of 2016 about them. Apparently, these are people who came here from places like Afghanistan and parts of Asia and applied for visas with the only names they had—single, often very long first names. But U.S. immigration forms demand two names, and woe betide the hapless immigrant who leaves a blank. Many report that when they finally receive their visas, they are identified as FNU plus their own first name, often long and seeming to Americans to be last names. Their Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and other identification automatically identify them as FNU, which Americans naturally struggle to pronounce and often assume is some exotic name from a far-off place.

Except it’s not. FNU is the acronym that the government in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom assigns immigrants who specify only one name. And so it turns out that FNU stands for “First Name Unknown.” The article reports the frustrations of FNUs trying to rid themselves of the unwanted acronym. The official red tape is often too much to bear, and some have resigned themselves to waiting until they become citizens and can specify their own name. Or names if necessary!

But one of my favorite naming stories comes via a school teacher in Philadelphia. She had a little girl in her class whom the immigrant mother introduced as “Fah-mah-li.” The teacher commented on what a pretty-sounding name it was and asked what the meaning of it was in her native country. The mother responded that it was an American name, that, in fact, the nurses at the hospital had named her. Confused, the teacher asked her what she meant. The mother replied that when her daughter was born, the nurses immediately put a bracelet on her with her name. Now becoming just a tad suspicious, the teacher asked her how the name was spelled. The proud and delighted mother responded, “F-E-M-A-L-E!”

As the saying goes, “Only in America!”

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