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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Hancock's signature is the most prominent on the United States Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

A signature (from Latin signare, "to sign") is a handwritten (and sometimes stylized) depiction of someone's name, nickname or even a simple "X" that a person writes on documents as a proof of identity and intent. The writer of a signature is a signatory. Similar to a handwritten signature, a signature work describes the work as readily identifying its creator.


Function and types of signatures

Signature from Benjamin Franklin

The traditional function of a signature is evidential: it is to give evidence of:

  1. The provenance of the document (identity)
  2. The intention (will) of an individual with regard to that document

For example, the role of a signature in many consumer contracts is not solely to provide evidence of the identity of the contracting party, but rather to additionally provide evidence of deliberation and informed consent. This is why the signature often appears at the bottom or end of a document.

In many countries, signatures may be witnessed and recorded in the presence of a Notary Public to carry additional legal force. On legal documents, an illiterate signatory can make a "mark" (often an "X" but occasionally a personalized symbol), so long as the document is countersigned by a literate witness. In some countries, illiterates place a thumbprint on legal documents in lieu of a written signature. There are many other terms which are synonymous with 'signature'. In the United States, one is John Hancock, named after the first of the signatories of the United States Declaration of Independence.[1][2]

Signature from Mahatma Gandhi

The signature of a famous person is sometimes known as an autograph, and is then typically written on its own or with a brief note to the recipient. Rather than providing authentication for a document, the autograph is given as a souvenir which acknowledges the recipient's access to the autographer.

In the United States, some states’ legal definition of a signature defines a signature to mean "any memorandum, mark, or sign made with intent to authenticate any instrument or writing, or the subscription of any person thereto." [3] In the context of one particular statute, a signature doesn’t have to be the popular notion of a written name, but may be other methods of authentication; the intent of any mark or memorandum makes a signature.

Many individuals have much more fanciful signatures than their normal cursive writing, including elaborate ascenders, descenders and exotic flourishes, much as one would find in calligraphic writing. As an example, the final "k" in John Hancock's famous signature on the US Declaration of Independence loops back to underline his name. This kind of flourish is also known as a paraph.[4][5]

Mechanically produced signatures

Special signature machines, called autopens, are capable of automatically reproducing an individual's signature. These are typically used by people required to sign many documents, for example celebrities, heads of state or CEOs.

More recently, Members of Congress in the United States have begun having their signature made into a TrueType font file. This allows staff members in the Congressman's office to easily reproduce it on correspondence, legislation, and official documents.

Several cultures whose languages use writing systems other than alphabets do not share the Western notion of signatures per se: the "signing" of one's name results in a written product no different from the result of "writing" one's name in the standard way. For these languages, to write or to sign involves the same written characters. Three such examples are Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In Japan and some other East Asian countries, people typically use name-seals or inkan with the name written in tensho script (seal script) in lieu of a handwritten signature (also see Calligraphy).

In e-mail and newsgroup usage, another type of signature exists which is independent of one's language. Users can set one or more lines of custom text known as a signature block to be automatically appended to their messages. This text usually includes a name, contact information, and sometimes quotations and ASCII art. A shortened form of a signature block, only including one's name, often with some distinguishing prefix, can be used to simply indicate the end of a post or response. Some web sites also allow graphics to be used. Note, however, that this type of signature is not related to electronic signatures or digital signatures, which are more technical in nature and not directly readable by human eyes.

Other uses

Vermeer's signature

The signature on a painting or other work of art has always been an important item in the assessment of art. Fake signatures are sometimes added to enhance the value of a painting, or are added to a fake painting to support its authenticity. A notorious case was the signature of Johannes Vermeer on the fake "Supper at Emmaus" made by the art-forger Han van Meegeren.

The term "signature" is also used to mean the characteristics that give an object, or a piece of information, its identity—for example, the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle.

By analogy, the word "signature" may be used to refer to the characteristic expression of a process or thing. For example, the climate phenomenon known as ENSO or El Niño has characteristic modes in different ocean basins which are often referred to as the "signature" of ENSO.


Under British law, the appearance of signatures (not the names themselves) may be protected under copyright law.[6] Under United States law, "titles, names [...]; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring" are not eligible for copyright.[7]

See also

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  1. ^ Dictionary definition of John Hancock, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2007, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Updated in 2007.
  2. ^ An alternate expression commonly used as a synonym for "signature" is "John Henry":

    JOHN HENRY/JOHN HANCOCK - "As every schoolboy knows, the biggest, boldest and most defiant signature on the Declaration of Independence was scrawled by John Hancock of Massachusetts. So completely did it overshadow the autographs of the other founding fathers that the term 'John Hancock' has become synonymous with 'signature' and each of us at the one time or another has spoken of 'putting his 'John Hancock' at the bottom of a document. In the West, a half century and more later, the phrase became altered to 'John Henry,' and nobody knows quite why. Suffice it that, in the words of Ramon Adams's excellent collection of cowboy jargon, 'Western Words': 'John Henry is what the cowboy calls his signature. He never signs a document, he puts his 'John Henry' to it!' Incidentally, there seems to be no connection between the John Henry of cowboy slang and the fabulous John Henry of railroad lore, who was so powerful that he could outdrive a steam drill with his hammer and steel, This legend has been traced to the drilling of the Chesapeake and Ohio Big Tunnel through West Virginia in the 1870s - substantially later than the first use of John Henry by cowpokes of the Old West."

    (JOHN HENRY/JOHN HANCOCK, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, William and Mary Morris, HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988, ISBN 006015862X );

    Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (Jonathon Green, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc, 2006, ISBN 0304366366) states that this usage of the phrase "John Henry" dates from the 1910s, and other synonyms for signature include "John Brown", "John D", "John Esquire", "John Handle", "John Q", "John Rogers", "John Willy" and "John Smith".
  3. ^ RCW 9A.04.110 Definitions.
  4. ^ Paraphe, also spelled parafe, is a term meaning flourish, initial or signature in French (Paraphe entry, reverso translation software, based on the Collins French-English Dictionary, Harpercollins, Flexible edition, August 1990, ISBN 0062755080).
  5. ^ The paraph is used in graphology analyses.
  6. ^ Spilsbury, Sallie (2000). Media Law. Cavendish Publishing. p. p. 439. ISBN 185941530X. "An individual's signature may be protected under law as an artistic work. If so, the unauthorised reproduction of the signature will infringe copyright. The name itself will not be protected by copyright; it is the appearance of the signature which is protected." 
  7. ^ FAQ at

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SIGNATURE (through Fr. from Lat. signature, signare, to sign, signum, mark, token, sign), a distinguishing sign or mark, especially the name, or something representing the name, of a person used by him as affixed to a document or other writing to show that it has been written by him or made in accordance with his wishes Or directions (see Autograph, Monogram, &C.). In the early sense of something which "signifies," i.e. marks a condition, quality or meaning, the word was formerly also used widely, but now chiefly in technical applications. In old medical theory, plants and minerals were supposed to be marked by some natural sign or symbol which indicated the particular medicinal use to which they could be put; thus yellow flowers were to be used for jaundice, the "scorpion-grass," the old name of the forget-me-not, was efficacious for the bite of the scorpion; many superstitions were based on the human shape of the roots of the mandrake or mandragora; the bloodstone was taken to be a cure for hemorrhage; this theory was known as the "doctrine of signatures." (See T. J. Pettigrew, Superstitions connected with Medicine or Surgery, 1844.) In printing or book ment of signalling. binding the "signature" is a letter or figure placed at the bottom of the first page of a section of a book, as an assistance to the binder in folding and arranging the sections consecutively; hence it is used of a sheet ready folded. In music it is the term applied to the signs affixed at the beginning of the stave showing the key or tonality and the time or rhythm (see Musical Notation).

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Simple English

]] . It contains the word KAROLVS.]] A signature is a special way that people write their name to imply that they agree to something which is written.

A signature is usually used by people to sign letters they have written, cheques to show that they agree to the payment of some money, petitions to show their support for views, and contracts. The way people sign things are different in different countries. In the UK most people have a signature which is just made from writing their name in their own handwriting, but in Côte d'Ivoire for example, young adults spend many months practicing fancy signatures which are hard to copy and not readable.

People who cannot write often mark a signature of a cross.

Hundreds of years ago rich people used sealing wax to make an impression of their signet rings next to or instead of a signature. This was called their "seal", which is where the term "seal of approval" comes from. Some formal documents still carry an official wax seal. For example, if a coat of arms is registered with the College of Heralds the registration document carries a wax seal.

Illegible signatures

Sometimes one finds a form where the person is asked to both

  • Print their names, so people can read it clearly, and
  • Sign their name

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