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"handwriting problems" page - "FORTUNE MY FOE" on electronic instruments (Kate's MIDI sequencing of an anonymous Renaissance piece FORTUNE MY FOE: the folk-tune, not the well-known John Dowling work which it inspired)

illegibility: can America write?

some facts on our handwriting crisis


The AMA's 1994 summer conference revealed that unreadable Rx's and medical records

present a major health hazard. Statistics established that at least 1 in 10 Americans'

health suffers because of physicians' handwriting.

See also the later research by Charles Inlander in his book MEDICINE ON TRIAL;

pharmacists have difficulty reading 93% of the prescriptions they receive.

Even in hospitals, 20% of prescriptions defeat all attempts to read them.

Click here for "Deadly Handwriting" -- how a doctor's scrawl caused brain injury, then death, to a patient.

In Queens, New York, another doctor's illegible handwriting kept his patient on dangerously wrong medication for almost a year. Click here to learn how it happened.

<or more disturbing events and statist

How a sloppily handwritten dosage amount killed a baby ... on his way to going home from the hospital.

ics relating to illegible medical penmanship, click here to jump to "physicians' handwriting: the facts" - further down on this page.
Bad handwriting on prescriptions 'putting diabetics at risk' Just how poorly do physicians write? Doctors' penmanship has reached such lows that many MDs write the names of different drugs identically - meaning that drug-manufacturers may soon need to change the names of commonly prescribed drugs to keep them from being confused with other commonly prescribed drugs. Renaming a medication - and publicizing the change - costs a great deal of money; almost certainly, the pharmaceutical industry passes the costs of these expensive changes on downwards to the consumer. For instance: even before the dangers of the arthritis medication Celebrex became known, medication errors involving the name of this product - misread in sloppy handwriting - killed patients because the sloppily handwritten name looked similar to the sloppily written names of other drugs which treated other conditions. Click here for a report on the confusion and its lethal consequences.


  1. Each year, unreadable tax-form addresses mean that up to $95,000,000 in tax refunds cannot reach the people who should receive them.

  2. "A plane crashed in December 1992 ... because of poor handwriting The pilot misunderstood the co-pilot's scribbled notes and instrument readings. Acting on this wrong information caused the crash and resulting deaths. (Source: the handwriting improvement guide PLEASE WRITE: HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR HANDWRITING FOR BUSINESS AND PLEASURE IN TEN QUICK AND EASY LESSONS by Wolf von Eckardt)

  3. Similarly, internal investigation of a 1965 NASA failure revealed the surprising cause: an engineer's scrawled (and misread) instructions. (Source: the handwriting improvement guide PLEASE WRITE: HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR HANDWRITING FOR BUSINESS AND PLEASURE IN TEN QUICK AND EASY LESSONS by Wolf von Eckardt)

  4. According to WIMA (the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association) and other good-handwriting advocates, FBI has traced to the thefts of computer hackers/crackers and other perpetrators of computer fraud.
    These $200,000,000 lost yearly because of problem handwriting include >time and money lost because ...



PARDON MY BAD FRENCH HANDWRITING ... "M" becomes "Ou" (Où+1"> est M?)
Wisconsin got its name when Sieur de la Salle, reading the journals of Father Marquette, Sieur de La Salle,  misread a cursive "M" as "Ou" in the name of the Wisconsin River.
The first Europeans to explore Wisconsin were Father Marquette and the fur trader Louis Joliet. Father Marquette wrote in his journal that they had embarked on a river that the local Miami Indians called Meskousing. The name "Wisconsin" resulted from this in 1674, when the explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, misread Marquette's initial "M," which was handwritten in cursive script, as "Ou". Thu,s the name of the river was printed on maps as Ouisconsing. American settlers Anglicized this difficult spelling to "Wisconsin."

HOME ON THE RANGE  ... which range?
That was not the end of bad handwriting on the Wiscoinsin map. In Ashland, Wisconsin, a surveyor's semi-legible scrawl changed the name of an iron-rich mountain range:
"Colonel Whittlesey, who was engaged in a geological survey of Northern Wisconsin [in the 1850s], had found much to encourage settlers to come to northern Wisconsin. The rich mineral wealth he found while surveying the Penokee range promised the need for railroads to be built. He had named the range 'Pewabic' (Indian word for iron) but his poor penmanship was misread as Penokee which is the name that has stayed with the range."

DOG-GONE HISTORY ... when an explorer's scrawl goes west
The illegible writing of explorer Meriwether Lewis left us guessing wrong - for almost two centuries - about the name of his dog.   -
" ... Did you know?    . For many years, scholars believed [explorer] Meriwether Lewis' Newfoundland dog was named Scannon. Blame bad penmanship. About 20 years ago[, in 1985], historian Donald Jackson noticed a Montana stream in an expedition map clearly designated as 'Seaman's Creek.' The explorers used names of expedition members for many geographic features, but,
'No person named Seaman is known to have been associated with the lives of either captain, and ... the word seems strangely nautical in view of its location,' Jackson wrote in his book 'Among the Sleeping Giants.'
'It occurred to me[, said Jackson,] that the name might be a garbled version of Scannon's Creek, in honor of the faithful dog. ... No geographical feature had yet been named for him during the entire expedition. I consulted microcopies of the journals held by the American Philosophical Society, half suspecting I would find that Seaman's Creek was actually Scannon's Creek. What I learned instead was mildly startling. The stream was named Seaman's Creek because the dog's name was Seaman.' ... "

Related info appears at

On November 15, 1789, Andrew Jackson swore an Oath of Allegiance to the King of Spain in order to do business in Natchez, which then was under the control of Spain. In the body of the written oath, his name was acording to an article in "Tennessee Historical Quarterly" Spring 1995, listed as "Aholuio Jaikson" by the Spanish scribe; however it looks more like "Aholuio Jaiksor" on reading the origninal document: probably based on misreading Jackson's signature. The oath is decipherably signed "Andrew Jackson," but some letters are written in ways that could easily have been misread by a scribe who was not familiar enough with English names to know that a particular alphabet-letter in a particular place could not have been an "h," for instance.
FAKED ALASKA? No, mmm — just named that way
Blame illegibility, not mischievous gnomes, for the name of Nome, Alaska: the only American city named after an Arctic geographical feature named after ... nothing.
According to the Nome, Alaska history-site, " ... against its wishes the city was stuck with the unusual name of Nome. Unlike other towns which are named for explorers, hero[e]s or politicians, Nome was named as a result of ... error.
In the 1850's an officer on a British ship off the coast of Alaska noted on a manuscript map that a nearby prominent point was not identified. He wrote '? Name"' next to the point.
When the map was recopied, another draftsman thought that the ? was a C [which could stand for 'Cape'] and that the a in "Name" was an o, and thus a map-maker in the British Admiralty christened 'Cape Nome.' "

On November 15, 1789, Andrew Jackson swore an Oath of Allegiance to the King of Spain in order to do business in Natchez, which then was under the control of Spain. In the body of the written oath, his name was listed as "Aholuio Jaikson" by the Spanish scribe acording to an artical in Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Sring 1995, but: probably based on misreading Jackson's signature. The oath is decipherably signed "Andrew Jackson," but some letters are written in ways that could easily have been misread by a scribe who was not familiar enough with English names to know that a particular alphabet-letter in a particular place could not have been an "h," for instance.

SEGUIN ... er, SEGUIM ... er, SEQUIM, WASHINGTON -- when good names go postal. In 1879, pioneers in the northwestern United States named their settlement and its post office "Seguin" because the town lay on a prairie of the same name. By 1907, the U.S. Post Office had incorrectly registered the town's name -- twice -- thanks to poor handwriting on official reports in the days before keyboarding. According to city records, "In 1907, due to a Postal Official's error in reading an official report, the post office was titled 'Seguim' for approximately a month. With the next report, the Official read the letter 'g' as a 'q' and the post office here became known as 'Sequim.' The name change apparently did not worry the residents enough to protest. It has been known as Sequim ever since."

Travelers throughout the UK and around the world enjoy visiting Scotland and touring such scenic islands as the Hebrides ... but how many of them know that this famous name owes its current spelling and pronunciation to a long-ago handwriting error? The earliest records gave these islands the name of "Hebudae" or "Hebudes" -- when eighteenth-century tourists rediscovered the locale and researched island history, somebody mistook a handwritten "u" for a handwritten "ri" ... once enough other writers had copied the original error, it became official.

Even the sciences do not escape the terminological tumbles caused by scribbling scribes. The astronomical term "zenith" -- meaning the highest point in the sky, directly overhead -- started out as "samt": an Arabic word for "path" that early astronomers used in the phrase "samt arras" meaning the "path above the head." Medieval scribes, rendering Arabic words in Latin letters as they translated and copied, dutifully copied the unfamiliar word ... but, then as now, an "m" in handwritten copy often looked sloppy enough for the next person to read as "ni": eventually creating "zenith" as other errors and variations in usage accumulated.


Did you know that the "v" in the word "gravy" came from the bad handwriting of a medieval cook?
Monash University linguistics professor Kate Burridge explains (in pages 69 - 71 of Burridge's WEEDS IN THE GARDEN OF WORDS: FURTHER OBSERVATIONS ON THE TANGLED HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE)
" ... the word gravy ... derives from Old French, either graine meaning 'meat' or grané meaning 'grain of spice'.
... sometime during the 14th century, someone slipped up in translating the original French cook books and misread the 'n' of the French word — and the mistake stuck. ...
The problem was that the letters u, v, i, m, and n were all very similar at the time. The strokes were identical. To make matters worse, scribes didn't leave a space between the letters. So if you had a whole lot of them together it was extremely difficult to figure out what they represented. Let's say you had five strokes in a row. That could represent uni, uvi, imi, ivu, nui and a number of other possibilities. Things were made even harder because it wasn't the custom then to put a dot or a stroke above the letter 'i'. Small wonder there was the occasional slip."
Click here to see a medieval cookbook page with "n" often handwritten like "u" — and "u" often written like "n"
You'll find "graueye" — one way of spelling "gravy" back then — on the second line from the bottom. Note how much the "u" in "graueye" looks like the "n" in another word on the same cookbook page, "Codlyng" ["coddling"].
Confusing medieval letter-shapes like these led Renaissance scribes to search for an easier-to-read alphabet style that would still permit fast writing. Today, the quest for legibility continues among those who like their handwriting clearer than their gravy.

Next time you stir up a glass of Ovaltine, think of this: the drink's inventor, Swiss scientist George Wander wanted to call it "Ovomaltine" because the original ingredients included egg protein and malt. However, his sloppy scrawl on the trademark application form left it officially named "Ovaltine" for many years.
(In Switzerland and many other nations, the product now has the name that Wander originally intended. But the USA and the UK still call it "Ovaltine.")



You have probably played or heard Beethoven's "Für Elise," the well-known piece he composed for the love of his life: Therese von Brunswick.
THERESE von Brunswick?! Yes.
When the manuscript turned up after Therese's death, Beethoven's semi-legible handwriting left the printer to guess about the title ... and the printer guessed wrong. Unfortunately for Beethoven and the rest of us, since Beethoven too had died he could not correct the error (which has remained in all editions).

Bad handwriting has affected the rock world, too. Many Eric Clapton fans have puzzled over the name of Clapton's instrumental piece "Badge." Clapton wrote this piece as an instrumental bridge while working with the band CREAM. The band-leader, trying to decipher the scribbled score, misread Clapton's hand-scrawled "Bridge" as "Badge."



>HOLIDAY HANDWRITING HAVOC: UK postal system destroys 5,000,000 illegibly addressed Christmas cards and letters
According to this United Press International news release, at the end of 2006 Britain's Royal Mail (the UK postal service) had to hire 3,000 new workers (more than twice its usual permanent staff of 1,400) just to decipher illegible addresses on holiday greetings.
Out of 2,000,000,000 cards and letters mailed in the UK during the Christmas season, each year the Royal Mail must destroy 5,000,000 as undeliverable because their addresses and return addresses defy decipherment.



NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT: When you have colds, flu, sinus problems, or allergies, say "Gesundheit!" for medieval mangled handwriting
Etymologists (students of word origins) have discovered that our word "sneeze" once began with an "f". Medieval English called a sneeze a "fnese" — which certainly sounds much more like sneezing than our version of the word. Partly because medieval handwritten "f"s and "s"s look very much alike, so many people perceived the "f" as an "s" that "sneeze" spread like a virus and "fnese" blew into extinction. (Source: Canadian Broadcasting Company program on word history)

SARAH JESSICA WHO? How a handwriting error changed the name of your favorite actress
When celebrity-watching journalist Abigail Pogrebin interviewed HBO's Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress revealed that her family owes its last name to a series of bureaucratic blunders which included one handwriting error. Pogrebin quotes Parker in ABC news coverage: "My great-grandfather on my father's side [was surnamed] 'Bar-Kahn' ... and the immigration officer thought he said 'Parken.' He wrote his N's like R's, so 'Parken' became 'Parker' ... ".



SCHOOL DAZE: when bad handwriting happens to good textbooks
Portland State University Continuing Education Press produced the first edition of the Getty-Dubay Italic Handwriting Series, textbook authors Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay soon found that schools ordering the books weeks or months ago still had not received them. After many frantic calls to the warehouse, the ironic reason appeared.
A warehouse manager, trying to speed the books out the door, had put a note on the books reading "Ship!" — but in the manager's sloppy handwriting, the "h" looked like a "k": changing the message to "Skip!"
So, week after week, the warehouse employees obediently skipped what needed shipping.



"MR. PRESIDENT, THIS SURE TOOK A LONG TIME TO BOUNCE": forger signs bad checks as not-so-"Honest Abe"
A New York City forger reportedly funded his holiday shopping spree by signing all his bad checks with a scribbled "Abraham Lincoln." The illegible handwriting kept people from deciphering the famous name and becoming suspicious.


HARD TO READ, EASY TO FORGE: if you want to get scammed, scrawl.
Many people suppose that unreadable signatures somehow baffle forgers. In fact, forgers prefer victims who sign illegibly. Imitating a clearly written signature in any style takes much more time and effort than imitating a scribble.

Clear signatures pay off in other ways, too. When Florida caricature artist Keelan Parham signed a piece legibly instead of scrawling, this enabled an admirer of the drawing to track down the artist and commission more work from him. Says Parham: "I never would have gotten this job if she hadn't been able to read my signature."



San Diego literacy researcher Patrick Groff has documented that at least one out of every three schoolteachers writes so illegibly>that the students have trouble reading blackboard lessons, assignments, or the teacher's corrections on written work. This plainly makes learning - and teaching - a hazardous process.