When President Obama put forward the name of Jack Lew to be the next secretary of the Treasury, there were two immediate reactions. First was puzzlement and the homophonic query “Lew who?” Then came the visual thrill ride that Mr. Lew calls his signature.
Even the President wryly observed that if Mr. Lew is approved for the post, the new Treasury secretary would be required to have at least one decipherable letter amid the sequence of tumbling o’s. Fair enough. They look like clowns spilling out of a small car.
Time’s Katy Steinmetz ran a piece entitled “What the Treasury Nominee’s Signature Really Tells Us” (January 11, Time NewsFeed), though the telling focuses on the practice of graphology and a reading of the signature by Eileen Page, a handwriting specialist.
Time might be reluctant—though others, including me, are not—to call graphology a pseudoscience, but it’s still fun to watch someone “interpret” a set of markings that stand in for the real person.
The decay of handwriting is a subject for another post, but it’s enough to say here that the decline of penmanship is one of the casualties of digital evolution. I can barely read my own hand, and I worry that my students can’t either.
Still, there’s something irresistible about the Lew-mark. What is it exactly? Stephen Colbert’s observation—“this pubic hair masquerading as an autograph”—put the question in place, though in a lower place than viewers might have expected.
It might, however, be the case that Mr. Lew’s slinky of a signature isn’t a signature at all but a paraph. I’ve always liked the word paraph. It sounds like it should be a paragraph in a hurry, or maybe an overlooked angelic category popping up in a Borges story.
A paraph, however, is that flourish-y bit below a signature. It’s calligraphic (meaning “beautifully written”) and now quaintly old-fashioned. But back in the day a paraph extended the pen nib’s last bit of serious business, which is to complete the signer’s name. A paraph functioned as an authenticating gesture, a sort of self-verification, so that the paraph proved that the signature was that of the person whose name the signature declared.
The paraph is related to the tughra, the exquisite calligraphic signature of the Ottoman rulers. This is the tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520).
It’s hard to separate “name” here from information about the name, and that’s part of the point.
The great rulers of European history were known by their deeds, and some also by their paraphs. Elizabeth I wielded a mean paraph, even if it looks a bit as if she used an Etch A Sketch.
English literature has its own internal history of authorial signatures and paraphs. There is surely no more inexhaustible a practitioner than Charles Dickens, whose paraph is as enviable as his invention.
Dickens isn’t trying to be pretty, and he isn’t. He’s just insisting, line after curving line, that he is Charles Dickens. Who could argue with a man who signed his name like this?
The most famous paraph in American history belongs, of course, to John Hancock. If Hancock isn’t remembered in much detail as a Founding Father, he still stands tall as a Founding Signer, having committed his name to the Declaration of Independence with a signature of uncommon boldness.
In a curious case of transference, Hancock’s full name became a 20th-century expression for one’s own signature. “Put your John Hancock right here,” said the used-car salesman or the insurance agent or anyone else needing your written commitment, and so you did.
The Boston Globe has already called attention to the minor differences between the Lew and Hancock signature.
To be sure, how Jack Lew signs his name would be of no interest whatsoever were it not for the fact that the signature of the secretary of the Treasury goes on every piece of printed American currency.
And that is no small thing. As a sign of transaction or commitment, a signature is a mark of extraordinary importance. Hancock, who was one of the wealthiest people in the American colonies, would have had a particularly clear understanding of the value—both monetary and philosophical—of that verification.
Should Jack Lew become Treasury secretary, his loop-de-loops will be part of the symbolic mechanism we rely upon to guarantee the value of our paper money. But it’s possible that the squiggle on the greenback would be just a rhetorical flourish—the paraph—to the name he doesn’t sign.
If “oooooooo” does indeed become the verifying signature on the not-almighty-for-quite-a-while-now dollar, it will say something about the end of handwriting and what we take signatures to mean.