Middle French or Medieval Latin; Middle French, from Medieval Latin signatura, from Latin signatus, past participle of signare to sign, seal
- Date: 1536
- 1 a : the act of signing one's name to something
- 2 : a feature in the appearance or qualities of a natural object formerly held to indicate its utility in medicine
- 3 a : a letter or figure placed usually at the bottom of the first page on each sheet of printed pages (as of a book) as a direction to the binder in arranging and gathering the sheets
- 4 a : key signature
- b : time signature
- 5 : the part of a medical prescription that contains the directions to the patient
- 6 : something (as a tune, style, or logo) that serves to set apart or identify; also : a characteristic mark
- 7 : fingerprint
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
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.
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." 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.