Old Ellis Island Name-Changing Myth Becomes Computer-Driven Reality

By David North on May 29, 2018

I went up to the teller's window in the bank I use in the D.C. suburbs, in McLean, Va., and noticed that the teller was new — there is a lot of turnover there and she, like most of the bank's staff, seems to be of Asian origin.

So I looked at her name plate on the counter. Her last name was longish and started with an M, but what caught my eye was her first name "FNU".

"That's an interesting name," I said, "Is it Arabic?"

"No," she said laughing, "It stands for 'First Name Unknown.'" That left me, normally loquacious, briefly speechless.

Then she explained that on her arrival to the United States from India the official handling her papers figured that the M name (that I have forgotten) must be her last name, and not knowing her first name he filled in the form with the initials FNU; maybe some autocratic software demanded that something be written at the "first name" slot. And she has used that name ever since.

Had I been a more thorough immigration researcher I would have asked where that official worked and why she had not subsequently corrected the mistake, though that must be a complicated process. Maybe I will, if I ever see her again.

It reminded me of the ancient and mistaken myth that incoming migrants' names were changed and shortened at Ellis Island. We now know that that it is not true, but maybe computers can cause the same kind of change, at least in the name of one cashier.