cursive

Over on Language Log, Victor Mair ignited some passionate discussion with a posting about the tattoos on the face of a young man (in a mug shot). The largest tattoo was on his forehead:

A reporter for the Daily Mail interpreted this as a misspelling of Genius, with a J instead of a G. Victor countered by saying that the letter was “a nicely formed cursive capital” G. Commenters in the U.K. were generally baffled by this claim.

Important points: the Daily Mail is British; the young man is American, from Cincinnati; there are many different styles of so-called “cursive” handwriting, and these have changed over the years; for roughly a century, American and British schools have diverged significantly in the sort of cursive, or joined-up, handwriting (distinct from printing) they teach. The result is that the initial letter above looks like an ordinary cursive G to many Americans (me included) but can be interpreted by most Britons only as some sort of weird ornamented J.

OED2 on cursive:

A. adj. Of writing: Written with a running hand, so that the characters are rapidly formed without raising the pen, and in consequence have their angles rounded, and separate strokes joined, and at length become slanted.

In ancient manuscripts the cursive style, showing some of these characteristics, is distinguished from the more formal uncial writing. [cites from 1784 on]

B. n. A cursive character or manuscript. [cites from 1861, 1881]

[In case you were wondering, cursive derives ultimately from the Latin ‘run’ verb and has nothing to do with cursing. The noun curse (and the verb derived from it) is treated by OED2 as an etymological mystery:

Late Old English curs, of unknown origin; no word of similar form and sense is known in Germanic, Romanic, or Celtic. (Of connection with cross, which has been suggested, there is no trace.)]

Now from OED3 (Dec. 2002) on the adjective joined-up, which the dictionary labels as specifically British:

Connected, conjoined. Of writing: cursive (as learnt in elementary school as a stage beyond printing individual letters separately), esp. in joined-up writing, joined-up handwriting; freq. used allusively and humorously to suggest a (usually basic) level of intelligence or standard of educational attainment (or depreciatively a lack of these). [first cites in the 1980s]

The Wikipedia entry has a bit more detail:

Cursive … is any style of handwriting that is designed for writing notes and letters quickly by hand. In the Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic writing systems, many or all letters in a word are connected.

In the United States of America, the name “cursive” is most commonly used to describe the method of writing that instructs students to join every letter in all words. In the United Kingdom and in Ireland, the phrase “joined-up writing”, “real writing” or “joint writing” is far more commonly used, while the term “running writing” or just “cursive” is most commonly used in Australia. Cursive is also commonly known as simply “handwriting” in Canada, New Zealand, and the US. Cursive is considered distinct from the “block letters” or “print-script” method of writing, in which the letters of a word are unconnected.

There’s more detail on some of the different schemes for cursive handwriting, including the D’Nealian script:

This is close to the script I was taught in the early grades of grade school (when we wrote serious work with nib pens dipped in ink; every desk had an inkwell); the nib pens disappeared somewhere along the line, and as soon as I could manage I wrote my homework on a typewriter. My grand-daughter has been using an iPad app that teaches this script, including the pesky capital G and the capital Q that looks like a 2. Me, I abandoned most of it long ago, though I still vary between D’Nealian caps and printed caps for some letters (among them, the A, M, and Z that are the initials of my three names).

17 Responses to “cursive”

  1. Benjamin Barrett Says:

    Although I use these forms to this day, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone else write a capital “Q” in this manner.

  2. Laura Patsko (@lauraahaha) Says:

    Ah, I remember being taught to write this way (in the US)! Then my family moved to England and I eventually gave up writing any schoolwork – or anything else, in fact – in cursive, because everyone just said “it looks very pretty but I have no idea what it says.” Ho-hum! Now I teach EFL, I never bother teaching students to form/recognize this style of writing.

  3. Benjamin Lukoff (@lukobe) Says:

    The only place I’ve ever seen a capital “Q” written in that manner was on the blackboard in my elementary school when we were being taught it. (Well, and on our practice sheets.) I have never seen it in the wild.

    • Jenny Says:

      I was informed by my dad, when I was taught to write like this, that no one really wrote capital Q that way, and that I should simply make a circle with a tail like everyone else. He was right.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        That’s pretty much what her mother and I told my grand-daughter. Opal’s been enjoying the challenge of things like the capital G — it’s aesthetically satisfying to her and a challenge to be surmounted — but we argued that the capital Q was likely to be uninterpretable to most people.

      • Alon Says:

        Actually, all that’s needed to make the capital Q understandable is to start the initial ascending stroke close to the baseline.

        I was taught something very much like the D’Nealian cursive in grammar school, back in Argentina in the 80s. I could never see the point of it.

  4. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    In South Australia, I was one of the first year of students to be educated after a new handwriting standard, South Australian Modern Cursive (SAMC), was introduced into state schools. Students one year my senior learned one of those old-fashioned curly, loopy styles that most people think of when they hear the word “cursive”, and were instructed in it throughout primary school. SAMC, by contrast, is a simple form of joined-up writing (if you like) in which many letters don’t join and there is hardly a loop in sight (not even under the g’s). The situation is different in other Australian states, for example even now, students in Victoria are taught a handwriting standard that is far more “cursive” (if I may use the term as an adjective) than what I was taught over 25 years ago.

  5. voidobsequy Says:

    For many years I did produce all my ‘Q’s in this manner, and likewise with the other capitals. While I still write almost all of my lower-case letters in cursive, I’ve given it up for the capitals, mostly for aesthetic reasons.

  6. Harry Campbell Says:

    In saying “American and British schools have diverged significantly in the sort of cursive, or joined-up, handwriting (distinct from printing) they teach”, you seem to be implying that the characters unfamiliar to Brits (such as G and I) were once used in Britain. I’m not convinced. As for others like T and r, if they were ever standard in British schools it was a long time ago.

    You also seem to be equating “cursive” (a formal set of conventions for writing as opposed to printing) with “joined-up writing”, which simply means joining up the letters you write, whatever shape those letters may have. There can be very few adults who don’t practise joined-up writing at least to some extent, but perhaps even fewer under retirement age who actually write a proper cursive hand such as is apparently familiar to Americans. And just to re-emphasise the point, it was never the same cursive as the American one.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “Cursive” is the standard technical term for joined-up (literally ‘running’) writing; look at the OED entry. (Cursive came into being for speed and ease, especially in times when people wrote with quill pens.) The fancy cursive styles developed as a kind of art form, no longer tied to practical concerns.

      At some point the term “cursive” came to be used (in ordinary, not technical, language) for these fancy styles in particular. That’s an interesting terminological development, but not a matter of substance.

      British and American cursive styles seem to have diverged more than a century ago. I know little about the history, but no doubt there’s careful scholarship on the matter.

  7. Harry Campbell Says:

    Incidentally, while I hate to defend the ignorant rantings of the odious rag that is the Daily Fail, the misinterpretation of the initial letter is even more understandable given that fact that the rest of the word is very clearly NOT in cursive. It’s not even in joined-up writing!

  8. the ridger Says:

    I have a tee-shirt written in some kind of Gothic or Blackletter script. It says Oregon Coast; it looks like Oregon Toast.

  9. Del Says:

    The DeNealian style is very elementary in form. It looks childish. It is drawn slowly and not written as other forms of that day.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      D’Nealian was a deliberate simplification for school purposes — to provide a form of cursive writing that was easy to learn and produce. In some people’s eyes, that would be a movement towards elegance and simplicity. To others, apparently, it’s a debasement of the elaborate styles of penmanship of earlier times.

  10. Ian Preston Says:

    When I learnt this at school (Birmingham, UK, 1970s) I think the teachers called it “joined-up writing” but the children all called it “writing in double.” I can’t think why we would have referred to it in that way and I can remember being discouraged for doing so. I would think I was imagining it if I hadn’t found this one instance of someone else remembering the same terminology.

  11. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words Says:

    […] pinyin over Chinese characters, as well as the genius of cursive tattoo writing. Mr. Zwicky offered his own thoughts on cursive writing on his […]

Leave a Reply to Harry Campbell Cancel reply


%d bloggers like this: