Loops and squiggles have meaning

Signatures may be out of date, but they still have relevance in today's world


eter Gzowski, the late CBC radio star, had the smallest one I’ve ever seen — looked like an inchworm with hiccups.

John Hancock’s, on the other hand, was colossal.  And magnificent. He laid it right across the bottom of the parchment of the American Declaration of Independence and declared “There.  I guess King George will be able to see that.”

Calm yourself, madame — it’s signatures we’re talking about here. Signatures are an ancient and rather old-fashioned method of personal identification.  We use our signatures to validate our drivers’ licences, personal cheques, leases, wedding vows, speeding tickets, petitions, hotel registries … the list goes on.

The irony is, our signatures are often unreadable.  Gzowski’s, as I mentioned was a nondescript squiggle, unrelated, as far as I could see, to any letter in the alphabet.

Mine isn’t much better — a touch more flamboyant but illegible to the uninitiated.

But much, much better than Jack Lew’s.  Mister Lew is the newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and his signature has made him the butt of jokes on late-night TV shows.

It’s just a series of joined circles — seven or eight of them. It looks like the famous Olympics logo run amok.

President Obama said (with a wink) that he’d had second thoughts about the appointment, seeing that the Secretary’s signature will appear on U.S. currency.  Jack Lew has promised to ‘work on it’.

Maybe he won’t have to.  It seems that signatures are passé.

In fact, it seems that handwriting is almost passé too.

A recent British survey shows that one in every three children struggles with cursive writing and one in five slips into ‘texting’ language when they do put pen or pencil to paper.

And they can’t depend on guidance from their parents.  Twenty percent of the parents contacted in the same survey admitted they hadn’t written a single letter by hand in the past year.

We can’t expect much help from the educational system either.

Down in the U.S., the National Governors Association has decreed new standards for the school curriculum and it’s all about computers.

The association calls for proficiency in keyboarding by Grade 4.

What are they going to drop to achieve that?  Elementary, my dear Watson — handwriting.  Right now, American kids receive 15 minutes of handwriting instruction per day.

That’s down from 30 – 45 minutes for the previous generation. Next stop: zero.

Supporters say it’s about time. They point out that retina scans and computer fingerprinting are already replacing signatures, so who needs signatures?

And my signature? It’s still illegible but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.  The other day I was signing a receipt for a credit card purchase when the clerk pointed out that the signature slot on my card was blank. I’d forgotten to sign it.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you buy this sir,” said the clerk.

I asked why.  Because, he said, the signature on my receipt had to match the signature on the card.

I took the card and signed it.  The clerk took it back and carefully compared it to the signature on the receipt.

Lucky for me they matched.



Arthur Black is a regular columnist.