Why would someone go to all the trouble of printing up stickers with what look like letters and sticking them up around town? Presumably this is someone’s personal symbol, a stylized version of their initials, and that got me thinking. We all know Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Juliet, said, “What’s in a name?” but Shakespeare, or rather Shakespeare’s character Iago, says, “But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed” although Iago isn’t exactly a trustworthy fellow and he’s in another play, but that’s another story. The writer Idries Shah also has a very funny story in his book The Natives Are Restless about the time he was in a market in Beirut and found a man selling “An Idries Shah signature” for about twenty pence in local currency.
When I asked for one the man concentrated for a moment, and then inscribed my name on crimson paper in gold ink, with many a flourish. It looked far more impressive than the real thing. Why, I asked him as I pocketed it, did he not sell originals? It seemed that they were ‘difficult to get, he is a most busy man, you see.’ Was a copy as good? ‘Ya Sidi, O Sir! Most people here cannot even write…’
Would the man whose signature he was forging, this Idries Shah, I asked, not object to such a trade?
‘Such a man, Sidi, written about in the newspapers, and a man of learning, undoubtedly a man of generous habits, surely would not grudge me a living?’
No, I supposed not. Besides, I reflected, next time I felt like being a bit reckless, I could write my name down a few times on a piece of paper–and throw it away. Even twenty pence is money.
This got me thinking even further about language, especially written language. February 21st, 2018, was the 190th anniversary of the first publication of The Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper published in both English and in the Cherokee syllabary created by the Cherokee Sequoyah who felt his people needed a written language.
Written language depends on a collective agreement about what symbols represent, just as spoken language depends on a collective agreement about what’s represented by sounds we make with our face holes, although language is also by necessity flexible and many words change meaning over time. So what I’m getting at is maybe those stickers aren’t meant to represent a person but a new and, for me anyway, unpronounceable name for whatever they’re stuck on. After all, what’s in a name?