The Signature Resigned [Names: part 2]

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.
W. H. Auden

It is easier than ever to have multiple identities online; allowing us to be the virtual persona we might wish we could be. At a time when individualism is a driving force in western society, it’s ironic that so many people are using alter-ego’s and non-de-plumes online. There are two observations to explore here, the changing nature of how we identify ourselves and how we express our identity in a changing world.

In Australia on August 1st, Australians will be required to use a PIN code on all ‘card’ related financial transactions, replacing the use of signatures; which is commonplace in many other countries already. From a cultural and identity perspective this is a significant change. Signatures are seen as unique and often as a creative graphic expressions of one’s identity; to be replaced by an alphanumeric four-digit pin that will need to changed every time there is a security scare. A personal-identification-number is security but is it really representative of identity in the same way as an unchanging signature? Already, biometric security is racing ahead of this, to use something much more individual – fingerprints and eye-scans are being phased out for our heartbeats, brainwaves-waves and DNA . This quantified means of identity will further deaden this type of individual expression.


A signature always reveals a man’s character – and sometimes even his name.
Evan Esar


What is a signature and where did it originate?

Western communication has been progressing through a series of media: from oral traditions, to non-verbal or written, to visual and some now are hypothesising the emerging world of a sensory communication era.

It is common that written languages start as a restricted, secret and privileged knowledge in most cultures (Vastokas 1994: 337) . In the early medieval period, the move to a written culture magnified the influence of the early church in Europe and its control over the writing and reading. This was through its near monopoly over the Latin language, with literacy limited to only a select few.
Latin had an aura as it was separated from the baser speech acts of everyday existence in the complex rituals of a clerical group, whose monopoly was the manipulation of this metalanguage. Power was embodied in the very naming of objects, for, according to medieval epistemology, “vox significans rem”’ Camille (1985: 30)

We understand this power in how we denigrate people. We call people idiots that don’t understand things – the origins of this word was idiota a Latin term borrowed from Greek for non-literate (Stock 1983: 28).

In the early medieval period, literacy is believed to have entered the oral legal system by imitating the already functioning verbal institutions. This was where testament and oaths became visual. ‘Unwritten’ law was made up of words, rituals, and symbols were used in the place of the author’s signature one had a sign, cross or simply a manumissio, a ceremonial placing of hands on the parchment’ (Stock 1983: 47). The purpose of this is to show that the illiterate participants (litigants) were witness to the document (Galbraith, V1935: 201-217.). Clancey (1979: 174) held the view that the use of the cross as signature in England in later medieval times was to indicate that the writer was making the precise sign of Jesus crucified. If we take the cross signature as signifying Christ, this shows another omnipresent witness and not just a sign of affiliation.

Of course, the other side made similar witness in Marlowe’s The Tragically History of Doctor Faustus.

Here, Mephistophilis, receive this scroll,
A deed of gift of body and of soul:
But yet conditionally that thou perform
All articles prescrib’d between us both.


There are many other occult and demonological tales of signatures that highlight the perfidy of using your signature in error.

Illustrating that size does matter; John Hancock’s name has become synonymous with signing documents, where, as President of the American Congress, his flourishing signature dominates the Declaration of Independence.



The other aspect of the signature is the autograph, which is a way of authentically marking something without the same legal surety. Autographed items, in their rarity, continue to be popular and are seen as a big business opportunity when sold for large sums of money.

Perhaps our shift to more condensed signatures is an outcome of Zipf’s Law. The Linguist George Kingsley Zipf, in looking at what words are most commonly used, statistically concluded that language evolves economically and that we tend to use smaller words where possible when writing.

“Zipf’s law is a natural outcome of a broad class of communication systems evolving under coding/decoding tensions. In other words, Zipf’s law emerges in a system where the coder and decoder coevolve under a general problem of energy minimization” (Bernat Corominas-Murtra , et al. 2010:6)

Simply, language evolves by using abbreviations and acronyms in order to makes things easier to communicate. There are other studies that illustrate that we prefer words simple to pronounce and understand in aiding more effective fluency. A study by Alter and Oppenheimer (2009)  was able to show a preference for stocks on the market that had names that were easier to say.

Already, the move to non-security systems such as Visa Paywave eliminate the need for a signature or PIN entirely. Whilst a four digit pin-code is a more efficient identifier in a world that is no longer analogue, the lack of individuality does seem to detract from something human.