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August 17, 2007

A Name We Have No Name For

Reuters has just announced that a Chinese couple tried to name their baby "@." As pronounced in Chinese, the symbol sounds like ai ta, which means "love him."

atworldsign.gif Given that the Chinese government has banned foreign letters and symbols from names for Chinese children, I don't think that the couple is likely to have much luck. And a symbol with so many curves in it might be difficult for the Chinese to write, given how different it is from their traditional style of calligraphy, either traditional or simple Chinese.

We've talked before about the challenge of names spelled with symbols instead of letters. In this case, we have an additional problem.

While many of the symbols we use, like the asterisk (*), ampersand (&), and carat mark (^), have names, there is no name for the @ in English. (One caller to KPBS' A Way with Words radio show suggested "atra," which actually has a rather nice ring to it.)

This in spite of the fact that the symbol is an old one, dating back to the Midde Ages, and was used by accountants to mean "at the rate of" long before e-mail came along.

little-mouse.gif Unlike English, Chinese actually has a name for the @ symbol: quan a (circular a) or hua a (lacy a). In Taiwan, the @ is called "little mouse" or the "mouse sign."

If people reading this child's name conclude that he's called "Lacy A" or "Little Mouse," they'll miss the point his parents want to make.

Better these Chinese parents should use the traditional symbols to write ai ta, I think.

Do you agree?

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Posted by William Lozito at August 17, 2007 8:24 AM
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1 Comment

It's interesting that so far the (admittedly small number of) people who've voted reckon this Chinese couple shouldn't name their child what they want. Why? What's it to them?

I write this as someone with an unusual name -- a single given name with no surname. I'm forever running into problems with forms which say surname is a "required field" when under Australian law a surname is not "required" at all.

Again, why do some people want to control how other people run their lives?

A name is an identifier -- something humans can pronounce and can write down. Every other restriction on naming practices is just petty censorship -- or worse, cultural interference.

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