"It really does make me wistful," Danesi says. "The signature is such a beautiful thing."
When it comes to financial transactions, it's difficult to find people who favor the continuation of electronic signature capture pads. Most prefer
"chip and PIN" technology -- a card with an embedded chip along with a personal identification number.
"There are pros and cons to both signatures and chip/PINs, so I am not an advocate of eliminating signatures at retail checkouts," says Heidi
Harralson, a forensic-document examiner who analyzes disputed signatures in civil and criminal cases. "However, many of the electronic signature
capture systems used by retailers are not capturing signatures that allow for forensic analysis."
She adds, "In my own research, I have found that a person's signature can alter dramatically between what is signed on the back of a credit card versus
what is signed on a capture pad. This is making it difficult for document examiners to verify signatures, let alone cashiers."
While some customers have given up on the capture pad, others are in outright revolt, choosing to write joke names or draw smiley faces in protest. "My
5-year-old signs for me," says Amy Clay of Florence, Ky. "She gets mad if she isn't allowed to."
Even at checkout counters that require customers to sign on paper, cashiers rarely question a signature. Such routine acceptance of almost any mark
inspired John Hargrave at the humor website Zug to ask the question: "How crazy would I have to make my signature before someone would actually
He started by scribbling, then moved on to drawing a matrix, and eventually converted his name into Egyptian hieroglyphics. No one noticed. Finally, he
took a reader's suggestion and signed "I stole this card." Still no reaction.
There was a time when signatures were taken seriously.
"We've always marked our existence," says Danesi. "Tribal cultures left the communal mark, or the kinship mark, on their surroundings. The mark could
have been the figure of an animal, or a tree, or anything in their immediate environment. And that mark meant this group of people was a family."
Wax seals were the preferred method of signing documents until the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, the handwritten signature began to blossom
alongside increases in literacy. "The signature became what semioticians call an index -- an identifier sign that will identify you for life," Danesi
says. "Signatures are expressive. In a way, we are our signature."
But the signature is ill-suited for many of its current uses. While signatures remain America's chosen method of authorization, PIN-code transactions
are much less susceptible to fraud.
"Fraud rates on credit or debit cards that are signature-based are much higher than on cards with PIN protection," notes Chris Hawkins in his book A History of Signatures: From Cave Paintings to Robo-Signings. In 2005, a consulting firm found that signature-based debit card fraud rates were
15 times higher than PIN-based fraud rates.