Daily Archives: July 15, 2013

Fnu Lnu

Does this look like fnu? I mean fun? What do you reckon it is? If you read the New York Times, you may already know the answer, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you that it’s a name for a person.

Not really a name like any you usually see, is it? Certainly it’s not in keeping with English phonotactics. Anglophones, looking at it, will tend to say “Fuh-noo Luh-noo.” Since we can’t start a syllable with /fn/ or /ln/, we tend by instinct to turn it into something that fits the rules of English pronunciation by stuffing in a vowel. This is like how an Italian speaker might say like as “like-a” or a Spanish speaker might say spoon as “espoon”: they’re not used to pronouncing the consonants in those positions, so they add a vowel to make it an allowable syllable.

There’s nothing intrinsically unpronounceable about /fn/ or /ln/. You can say toughness and wellness; those have the /fn/ and /ln/ across syllable boundaries, but you’re saying the sounds next to each other – syllables are mental, not physical, constraints. Say “ffff” and then break into “no”: “fffffffno!” It’s just a matter of getting used to it to make the /f/ shorter to say /fno/. Now say “helllllllno!” Drop the “he” and say “lllllno!” Same deal – just shorten the /l/ and make /lno/. It’s nothing other than mental barriers keeping us from say Fnu Lnu just as written.

It’s true that you don’t see /fn/ or /ln/ combinations in all that many languages. We have a combination similar to /fn/ in English: /sn/. But /s/ is more strident than /f/; it stands out more. It’s also two sounds made in the same place, whereas /fn/ moves from the teeth and lips to the tongue. So /sn/ is a little more likely to be found than /fn/, since /fn/ may over time shift to become /sn/ for ease and better sound. On the other hand, /ln/ is said in the same place – the tip of the tongue doesn’t move – but that’s part of the reason for its rarity: the lateral /l/ sounds almost too similar to /n/ when it’s next to it. You’re quite likely to get assimilation, so it becomes /ll/ or /nn/, and then maybe just /l/ or /n/. So both words, Fnu and Lnu, are possible and are not hard to say, but they are less likely to be found in a given language.

So what language is this name Fnu Lnu from?

Judi Tull, of the Newport News Daily Press, must have been wondering that in 1994 when she reported on an indictment containing the name. Not too long after the article went to press, she found out. And so on a subsequent day the newspaper published the following:

An article in Saturday’s Local section incorrectly reported that a suspect identified as “Fnu Lnu” had been indicted by a federal grand jury. “Fnu Lnu” is not a name. FNU is a law enforcement abbreviation for “first name unknown,” LNU for “last name unknown.” Officials knew the suspect only by the nickname ‘Dezo.’

In other words, Fnu Lnu is something that was just put in to fill a gap, and was misread. So, since it’s English, say it as you will. But really, if you say “fuh-noo luh-noo,” you’ll be reading in something that’s not there, just to fill a gap.

And, hey, I didn’t say it really was a person’s name. I just said I’ll tell you that it’s a name for a person.

A play called Fnu Lnu was written and produced off-Broadway, inspired by the erratum. And the abbreviation is still in use. Read more in the January 4, 1998, Daily Press and in the July 15, 2013, New York Times.


On the way back from a weekend at a friend’s cottage, we had Toto’s CD IV playing in the car – the one with “Rosanna” and “Africa” on it. I first bought that as a record when it came out, when I was in high school. Thanks to it, I always think of two things when I hear the word Toto. The other thing, of course, is Dorothy’s little dog from The Wizard of Oz.

If this word were written all in lower-case, it could look mathematical: +0+0. In all upper case, it can still look geometric: TOTO. As a capitalized word, it mixes it up a bit more – the bar slides from the top to the middle – but it still has those two o’s.

And actually it can be an uncapitalized word. Not in English – in Latin. It’s an inflected form of the word for ‘all’. You’ll see it borrowed into English in the phrase in toto, ‘in all’ or ‘completely’.

As a proper noun, it’s more than just the dog and the band. There’s an Indo-Bhutanese people living in West Bengal, India, who are called the Toto. Toto can also be a nickname for someone named Antonio or Salvatore. It was a common enough nickname a century ago that Frank Baum may have picked it for Dorothy’s dog just because it was a known name and he liked the sound. Whatever reason Baum used it (he doesn’t seem ever to have said), the musical group Toto got the name from the dog – but that was originally a placeholder name for their first studio recording project. They ultimately decided to keep it, and were likely also positively influenced by the all-encompassing Latin sense.

It’s a nice, simple name, anyway. Two taps of the tongue behind the teeth; the lips holding rounded. Replace the /t/ sounds with something else and you can get oh-oh, no-no, gogo, dodo, so-so, cocoa, yo-yo…

There’s one other Toto that I really should keep in mind, since it’s the one I look at several times a day. This one is a brand name, actually short for Toyo Toki, a Japanese company. They are the world’s biggest manufacturer of… toilets. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that toilet also starts with to (on the page; when it’s spoken, you have to treat the /ɔɪ/ as an ensemble). Anyway, we have two of their very good low-flow toilets (perhaps one for Dorothy, and one for her little dog too). They use barely enough water to melt the Wicked Witch of the West, but they still do their job very well.