The Elbert Files: A requiem for pen and ink
Thursday, February 21, 2013 9:53 AM
President Obama’s nomination last month of Jacob “Jack” Lew as treasury secretary focused attention on a subject most of us have ignored since grade school: penmanship.
Lew’s signature, we learned at his nomination press conference, consists of a series of loops. The first could conceivably be a “J” but the seven loops that follow are pretty much indistinguishable.
That would be irrelevant, except that as treasury secretary, Lew’s signature will appear on U.S. currency. That prompted Obama to tell reporters: “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency.”
Illegible handwriting is hardly new. In fact, it’s a cultural phenomenon.
British author Philip Hensher recently wrote a book on the subject. It’s called “The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting” and is an interesting history of handwriting, pens and ink.
As Hensher notes, most of us long ago forfeited any expectations of being able to read the handwriting of others. In fact, it is to the point where many of us – including Jack Lew, I assume – can’t even read our own handwriting.
I find that oddly reassuring.
Like most people my age, I was taught in grade school to print and later to write in cursive, a flowing style where all the letters of individual words touch.
I feel the need to explain cursive, because Hensher said that in many parts of the English-speaking world, handwriting, let alone cursive, is no longer taught.
I don’t know if they still teach cursive here, although it was still being taught during the 1980s, when my children were in grade school. Hensher says that following the explosion in Internet use in the 1990s, cursive was abandoned by most of the dwindling number of schools that had, up to that point, continued to teach it.
The concept of joining the letters of individual words originated in the 1700s. It began as an art form called copperplate with lots of loops and curlicues, according to Hensher. Then in the 1800s, he said, it was pared down and taught as a form of speedwriting that was designed to advance business communication.
By the early 1900s, cursive writing fell out of style, Hensher said, then back in and out again.
It was in style when I attended St. Cecilia Elementary School in Ames in the 1950s.
I quit joining my letters when I was in college and noticed that my lecture notes looked more like waves than words. It got to the point where I could not read my own cursive writing, so I reverted to printing.
By forming each letter individually, and not as part of a continuous flow, I found I could still read my notes days or weeks later when it was time to cram for finals.
Printing worked reasonably well for me until late in my newspaper career, when even my printed letters lost shape to the point where I sometimes had difficulty deciphering them.
By then, hand-held tape recorders and computers keyboards were available.
Computers, especially spell-check, saved my career.
I know a lot of reporters who are bad spellers, but few were as awful as I was during my early years. In a crime story I wrote for the Associated Press in 1970, I once spelled “necklace” n-e-c-k-l-e-s-s.
The AP was my first job after college. I was fired after six months, probably more because of my attitude than my spelling, which although it was bad, was not a lot worse than that of many of my colleagues.
Anyway, today, I’m proud to report that when I sign a document, three of the 11 letters in my name are recognizable.
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