KENT WARD

Squiggles and strokes of the pen

Posted April 15, 2011, at 7:37 p.m.

Peruse the copy of the Declaration of Independence that is coming to the Bangor Public Library next month and you’ll find that you can easily read the signatures of most of the 56 patriots who signed the document 235 years ago — some with grand flourishes, some with an underline for emphasis, and others in a tightly controlled, frugal script.

The bold and dominant stroke of John Hancock, apparently the alpha male of the group, certainly leaves no ambiguity in identification. Nor does the perfectly formed and neat lettering of John Adams, Pennsylvania delegate John Morton and others.

By contrast, the autographs of celebrities in sports, the arts and other endeavors can sometimes seem to be first cousin to symbols chiseled into the bedrock by some creative Stone Age caveman. The signature, usually scrawled in haste when the signer is on autopilot, might feature a couple of lazy swirls connected by an effortless squiggle — a status symbol, of sorts, suggesting that the rich and famous march to the beat of a different drummer in such things.

The 18th century poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan may have had this crowd in mind when he wrote, “You write with ease to show your breeding; but easy writing’s curst hard reading.”

When former Alaska governor Sarah Palin autographs her books at a book-signing session, she often looks the purchaser straight in the eye while simultaneously carrying on a conversation and signing her name. I’ve never seen the result of her no-look multi-tasking performance, but I suspect that anyone setting out to distinguish a legible “Sarah Palin” in the scrawl might have a hard job of it. Such a signature would have the advantage of being nearly forge-proof, I would suppose, although it might be hard, as well, for its creator herself to precisely duplicate.

Old-timers will contend that, generally speaking, penmanship was far better in the less hectic, pre-Twitter gadget days of yore, when young school kids were extensively drilled in the practice daily — a portion of the exercise involving creating pages of ovals and “push-and-pulls” to help get the hang of it.

On occasion, I still receive old-fashioned handwritten letters in the old-fashioned mail from old-fashioned people, and almost without exception, their superb penmanship is something to write home about.

Graphology — the study of handwriting for character analysis — has become a big and, at times,  controversial practice here and abroad. Some businesses apply it to the recruitment process, apparently to weed out potential axe murderers, embezzlers and the like.

“The art of interpreting the squiggles, strokes and spacing of someone’s scrawl has moved from an end-of-pier sideshow into the boardrooms of British companies in recent years,” BBC News reported in 2005.

Proponents claim that the practice can show much about a writer, including how he will perform under stress. Opponents such as the British Psychological Society rank graphology alongside astrology — giving them both “zero validity” in determining someone’s character.

British graphologist Erik Rees contends that a skilled graphologist can identify a wide variety of character traits, including creativity, nervousness, sincerity, ambition, lying, tenacity and ability to work with others. “Handwriting is the unplanned reflex movements of the brain. If you had to write with a pen in your mouth or between your toes, your style would still be the same,” he said.

Above all, our signatures can reveal a lot about our self-image, the website graphicinsight.co.za suggests.  A signature with overlarge, inflated and ornate capitals that contrasts markedly with the rest of the autograph, for example, “shows an individual who feels insecure but tries to hide it with a display of importance.” But write too fine, in a tiny, conservative script, and you stand to be accused of being a tightwad, and probably an insecure one at that.

What’s a person to do? Keep your handwriting legible, of healthy size, slant it gently to the right, don’t cramp your letters and practice good spacing. That’s what Mother Teresa did in her writing, according to an analysis of her penmanship on the Graphic Insight website.

And look at what she accomplished.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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