What’s in an @

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Andy Lau is one of the most popular Chinese actors of the past 20 years, the singer of dozens of pop hits, the man that women in one survey most said they would like to father their child, a successful film producer and a pretty good bowler. Not that I’m jealous. In fact, in one way at least he’s is pretty average.

Lau, who is better known Lau Dak-wa to the Cantonese world or Liu Dehua to Mandarin speakers, shares a name with 16,975 people in China, according to the Legal Evening News, a Beijing paper. (No word on how many also adopted the Western handle “Andy.”) China’s world record hurdler Liu Xiang has an even more common name that he shares with more than 18,000. The two men could each start fans clubs comprised only of their namesakes.

Part of the reason for the repetition is popularity of certain Chinese names. While there are thousands of Chinese surnames, the majority of the Chinese world falls under 100 or so. In fact, the phrase for “the common people” is “old 100 surnames.” Hence there are tens of millions with the family name Li, Wang or Liu.

Add to that a relatively standard writing system. In languages that use the Latin alphabet you can get all sorts of spelling variations. So the Scottish “Ramsay” can also be “Ramsey,” or, if you have an especially illiterate ancestor going through immigration in the New World, “Ramzy”–which is one popular theory in my family about the origin of our name. While Chinese names can be romanized in many different forms, the characters are usually written in only one or two standard ways.

Not that people aren’t trying to shake things up. Reuters reports that a Chinese couple tried to name their baby “@”, which the country’s language maven took as a sign of how technology is degrading linguistic standards. A baby @ might not fly with officialdom, but you have to praise the parents for giving him a head start on stardom.