X marks the spot. Unfortunately, that spot is where a perfectly sloppy, often-illegible signature should be. The writing has been on the proverbial wall for quite awhile that cursive, and with that, a proper signature, are going the way of the dodo and proper pre-texting spelling. Schools no longer wish to teach it, students feel no need to learn it and the advent of electronic signatures and verification mean individuals have cause to need it less and less.
Fair enough. Besides, as someone who often ruined her elementary school grade point average with C's in handwriting, the idea of shelving graded penmanship is perfectly acceptable. New generations of children should not be motivated to choose doctor as their early career path only because it is the only occupation in which three lines, a squiggle and a dot are an accepted if not even outright expected form of handwriting.
Yet, with the skill becoming as uncommon as calligraphy, how will these same future generations be able to mark National Handwriting Day?
National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23 honors the 276th birthday of John Hancock, the poster boy for famous signatures, and is an attempt to keep the lost art of writing relevant. Of course, it is also a day sponsored by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association which undoubtedly has a stake in pens, pencils and markers not joining quills as outdated relics. Come tomorrow, though, the biggest surprise won't be that such a holiday exists. Instead, the question will likely be, "What's handwriting?”
Unlike email created in computer fonts and emoticons, handwriting offers a personal touch to correspondence be it a hastily scribbled birthday card or Unibomber-like manifesto. Brilliant ideas get fleshed out on cocktail napkins. Love letters get x's and o's with a special flourish. Electronic thumbprint scans may be more secure but they will never be instantaneously recognizable in the eyes of loved ones who immediately know the long swoop of the s, the long tail of the g or the mish-mash of print and cursive that most people eventually settle into years after grade school practice on lined paper.
As handwriting evaporates, so will handwriting analysis. So much for murder mysteries that rely on document examiners proving the deceased did not write that suspicious suicide note or sign the will just before they conveniently passed away. And too bad for those who think the key to somebody's personality is evident in just how they cross their t's and dot their i's. Goodbye to those folks at the county fair that turn one's signature into colorful artwork of feathers and flowers and so much for using cursive when engraving a name on rice. Fewer middle fingers may become calloused from grasping writing implements tightly so farewell manufacturers of pens with those helpful squishy centers. Cashiers will no longer be checking the back of credit cards for matching signatures and birthday cards passed around the office will just be a sea of printed well-wishes.
A third-hand story passed on a couple weeks back would have sounded incredulous a few years ago. Now the tale just sounds realistic and sad. A woman standing in line behind a young student at Skyline College overheard a school employee ask him to sign his name on some paperwork. He couldn't do it. He had never learned how. As these scenes become more and more common, signatures will return to an X — once again the accepted signoff for the illiterate.
With the absence of learning to write cursive, the skill of reading the style of handwriting will also disappear. Someday, looking at cursive will be like decoding hieroglyphics, a niche market left to archeologists, graphologists and teens who think listing the arcane ability on their resumes will help secure a spot in an Ivy League school.
At least, if nothing else, future treasury secretary nominees need not worry about having their slinky-like loopy scrawl torn apart publicly, a la Jack Lew. American currency will likely instead boast names written out in a classic Helvetica or maybe even a quirky Zapf Dingbats.
Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword. It just not strong enough to stave off change.
Michelle Durand's column "Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.