Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

What's in a Name?

I could easily fill a book with human pastimes that elude my understanding. I’m at an utter loss, for example, as to what would possess any sensible individual to participate in a contest to see who can eat the most hotdogs. I just don't get what's good about that. Similarly, I fail to grasp the appeal of joining the Polar Bear Club for an ice-cold dip in the ocean. I will also never understand the alleged allure of karaoke, cosplay, Civil War reenactments, trainspotting, soap carving, gingerbread houses, fantasy football, or dog shows. And I haven’t a clue why some people enjoy watching other people play games online, and yet,, inexplicably, they do.

And then there’s the mysterious hobby of accosting famous and not-so-famous people and asking them to sign things. I have long wondered what possible value the practice of obtaining autographs could hold. What is its purpose? Is it to prove to everyone that you’ve met someone of high status? If so, how do your friends know the scrawl before them is legitimate? Is it a memento? If so, what does it commemorate—that time you coerced someone you didn't know and with whom you hadn't conversed into signing something (ah, what memories)? Is it a compliment to the requestee? I might suggest, as an alternative, that one try simply giving a compliment. The whole practice has me baffled, confounded, and flummoxed.

Actor Steve Martin may have felt the same. He briefly had a policy of declining autograph requests and instead offering fans business cards containing his preprinted signature and the words “This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.” Unfortunately, people didn’t appreciate the ironic commentary, and Mr. Martin had to discontinue a practice that this curmudgeon admires as an appropriate response to an absurd request.

As is often the case while writing these entries, the topic of the week has intrigued me enough to do a bit of cursory research. It turns out that autographs date back to ancient Greece. (Not that that makes the practice any more sensible. Plenty of mighty goofy things date back to ancient Greece. Remember, these are the same folks who like to break plates.) The word “autograph” comes from autographon, meaning “written in one’s own hand.” Back then, only fancy people could read and write, so owning signed stuff showed that you traveled in hoity-toity circles. These ancient Greek autographs weren’t on napkins or show programs, but on important documents—edicts and stuff—and the entire document was penned (reeded? quilled?) by the signer. So if you owned an autograph, you owned a piece of history.

Time, as it always does, marched on. It was the Europeans, during their wacky Renaissance period, who started the idea of collecting signatures of the famous in autograph books. This was a transparent tactic to show off for visitors to one’s home by letting them know who you’d met, which is why I was surprised to learn that even King Charles I of England maintained one. Who was he trying to impress?

Now, of course, the practice survives, but devoid of any of the Greeks’ reverence for history or the Europeans’ organized collecting. Fans come charging up to their idols waving napkins, matchbooks, receipts, ticket stubs, programs, and other paper items . . . and it turns out that paper is only the more common of the materials presented to celebrities for signing. Fans have been known to ask for signatures on various body parts, as well as underwear, a sock, a car dashboard, an inhaler, a Twinkie, a banana, a prosthetic leg, a dog, a fast food container, a diaper, a waffle, a grilled cheese sandwich, and even a baby.

And after all that, what has the autograph seeker acquired, I ask you? It’s not much—just some ink, alleged to be the mark of a great person, adorning some piece of detritus that will probably end up in a box full of miscellaneous items somewhere in one's home, never to be seen again. And often, unless carefully preserved, the autograph doesn't even last. (Eventually, you’ll have to wash the baby, and there goes that memento literally down the drain.) I simply don't understand the point of it all. Even after my many minutes of non-extensive research on the subject, it's still all Greek to me.