John Hancock (1737-1793) is an American icon; statesman, patriot, one-time governor of the state of Massachusetts, and signatory to the primal document, that established the United States as an independent political and geographic entity, the Declaration of Independence. But the one reason he continues to be remembered and often quoted is not any one of those qualifications but the way he signed his name on that imposing document, in deliberate, bold, linked together letters, as in cursive format.
It is not uncommon these days, for instance, to be asked to put your Hancock on the dotted line and then we are all set to proceed with the process of filing a loan application or other document agreement. That is how impressive his signature on the famous document was.
We are sorry, Mr. Hancock, the cursive format of writing in English is fast disappearing. The old “Hancock” may be replaced in a variety of ways such as printing, or even a fingerprint scan. We are told anecdotally that when asked why he took such meticulous care in signing the document, he answered: “George will see it.” The reference is to King George III of England who hated him so much for his anti-British position as to put a prize on his head.
The English alphabet has just twenty six letters. Each letter can be written in four different ways: upper and lower cases in print and cursive respectively. One has thus to learn to read and write one hundred and four letters without the benefit of that many letters in a phonetic tongue. Confusing conundrums in etymology are too many as a consequence.
It is no surprise that a Common Core Curriculum Standard is soon to be adopted in all of the United States. Common Core focuses on computer and analytical skills rather than penmanship. The keyboard, obviously, is the evolved tool for all such endeavors and cursive writing is the favored skill to be painlessly dropped. It is pointed out that one of the major pitfalls of Common Core is that it boils down to one giant testing program. The teach-to-the-test practice is aptly illustrated in the cattleman’s crude adage: “you cannot fatten a calf by simply weighing it.”
We all know that this is not a change occurring overnight. This trend has been in place now all across the English speaking parts of the world including the mother country, England. For instance, I am now looking at two framed diplomas/certificates, on the wall, issued about fifty years ago to me from the University of London and the Institute of Physics, London respectively. In both, the ornate part of the text is printed while the specific part appears to be “cursive printed,” not calligraphed by hand at all. The “writing has been on the wall” for a while. Perhaps, we owe it to Hancock to establish a National Handwriting Day in his memory.
Handwriting and signature analysis (Graphology) in the cursive writing format is an established procedure for evaluating the writer’s personality. The scientific value of the procedure is perhaps debatable. The point is, however, moot because that form of writing in English is fast disappearing. Printing in the upper or lower case is a more deliberate effort and the manuscript may not carry a personality trait.
We see quite often the ceremony of signing a major piece of legislation by the U.S. President, for instance, using multiple pens, which are later distributed as souvenirs. This is different from signing a check or a document in everyday life. I can remember from yonder years how fascinated I was with dotting the i and crossing the t (the cursive “i and t”) and at conjugating long words such as impecuniocity or anti-dis-establishmentarianism, with a generous spread of these two letters.
Among the bygones of the last half century are the ink well and the dipping pen, the four line ruled practice pads for cursive writing, the type writer, correcting tape, the white out, the cyclostyle for copying and others. These were a few of my favorite things.
The Three Rs
Sorry, John Hancock, again. The three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) are gone too. Arithmetic appears to be no longer needed. Its role has been taken over by the calculator. Has anyone engaged in a conversation about a billing discrepancy with a cashier at a check-out counter?
The omniscient, ubiquitous keyboard, real or virtual, has just about taken over the pen. You may type in the English alphabet and get the read-out in another language, Tamil, perhaps,—a phonetic language. The e-reader tablet is probably the latest in the realm of gadgetry to arrive on the scene. An e-book can be read out to us in a grand-motherly monotone or a teacher’s pedagogic style.
Change has arrived on the scene. Time waits for no man.
P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.