A character depicted with terrible handwriting. Not just a couple of words that can't be made out here and there, but almost every word will be impossible — or almost impossible — to read.
This does not apply to depictions in animation where everybody's writing looks like random squiggles, or to small children learning how to write. This is when it is explicitly stated by a character that the writing looks like random squiggles or chicken scratch.
This attribute is often associated with doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, as well as English teachers and secretaries.
- In Chibi Maruko-chan, two classmates of Maruko are known to have bad handwriting.
- Inazuma Eleven:
- Endou Daisuke's handwriting is outright shown to be completely illegible, and at least one character initially mistakes it for some elaborate secret code. The only other person who could read it is his grandson Endou Mamoru, and even this comes as a big shock to everyone else at first. Later, Kudou Fuyuka comes along and can also read it; this turns out to be foreshadowing another plot point much, much later down the road.
- In Inazuma Eleven GO Chrono Stone, Fei and Wondeba mention that in their time (200 years in the future), there's a famous artifact book known to the people of the future as the "Holy Book of Champions" and stored in a museum under the tightest security. It's thought that the information contained in it was so powerful that it had to be written in code lest it fall into the wrong hands, and nobody has ever been able to decode it. Upon seeing it, several characters comment that it doesn't even look like writing at all. Turns out it was just extremely bad handwriting — belonging to Endou Daisuke, no less.
- Kuroh says this about Shiro's handwriting in K, which gives them an excuse to call Kukuri and ask her what she told them to buy and find out that her memory has been altered when she doesn't remember them, but it also foreshadows that Shiro might not be used to writing in Japanese.
- In Ranma ½ this is a characteristic of Happōsai. His handwriting (in Japanese, of course) is horrible and barely legible. So much that at one point, even he can't read his own handwriting.
- Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin. Seeing as he was born to a family of farmers, spent about a year as a slave, was raised by a hermetic swordsman from ages six to thirteen, and then left to join a militia, there probably wasn't much opportunity to work on handwriting. In fact, being literate is already an achievement for someone of his social class.
- The '90s' Canadian dub of Sailor Moon badly Bowdlerized the series as a whole, including calling the Japanese symbols written by Sailor Moon herself "squiggly handwriting" in one instance where the viewers get to see what she's written (when it isn't shown, characters will instead comment that she can't spell very well or uses horrible grammar). This is partly due to a Lost in Translation issue, since not too many people are familiar with Japanese writing. In a way, this is actually a brilliant adaptation, a way to convey a similar concept in English. In the original Japanese, Usagi is known to be academically inept, so her writing, while mostly legible, has lousy grammar; namely, she either avoids using Kanji or uses the wrong ones. The Viz dub takes a different but still-quite-adaptive approach: changing the focus from the lack of Kanji to the idea that said lack demonstrates that Usagi has the writing aptitude of a kindergartner.
Minako: [displaying the letter] It looks like a child wrote it!
- Hachiken's elder brother Shingo in Silver Spoon. His notes from studying for university entrance exams are quite useful... if you can read them. His writing is routinely compared to the scratching of chickens. Ironically, Hachiken's classmate Tokiwa, whose family owns a chicken farm, is the only one who can reliably read his writing.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V, Yugo's terrible handwriting is based on the fact that he grew up an orphan and borderline homeless, so he obviously didn't have much of an education.
- Disney Ducks Comic Universe: There is an Uncle Scrooge comic that has Scrooge finding an old IOU and being unable to make out the signature (it doesn't help that he's broken his glasses). He starts tracking down people he thinks it could be but finds that he owes each of them money. He eventually realizes that the signature is his own and it was an IOU he wrote to himself.
- In Watchmen, the police are unable to tell whether Rorschach's journal is written in some elaborate code or if it's just that his handwriting is totally illegible. That said, the newspaper he mails the backup copy of his journal to doesn't have any trouble reading it, and Rorschach affixes a footnote saying that he did his best to make it legible, so it seems that he can write neatly, but it requires more effort on his part than just scribbling quick notes to himself.
- The French comic Mammouth Et Piston has the main character receive a postcard from a friend, but it's so illegible no one in the cast can make out more than three words (and one of them is wrong). A "Eureka!" Moment occurs when one complains that "he writes like a doctor", and they take it to the local pharmacist who reads it with no trouble.
- Big Nate: Nate's handwriting is usually decent, but in one strip, he gives the School Picture Guy the name of their band so that he'll know what to call them when they're about to perform. Unfortunately for him...
School Picture Guy: "Ladies and gentlemen... Engorge the Mullet!" Kid, that's the worst name of all time.
Nate: It's Enslave the Mollusk!
School Picture Guy: Kid, that's the worst handwriting of all time.
- In one Blondie strip, Dagwood's handwriting is said to be so bad that a banker addressed him as "Doctor" when he left.
- In one Hägar the Horrible strip, Hagar, who's illiterate, wishes he could read the prescription a doctor gave him. So does the pharmacist (or whatever he is, since he's in the Viking agenote ).
- JumpStart has a child whose parents named him Doctor and dress him up in scrubs. When Marcy comments to his mother how horrible Doctor's handwriting is, she beams with pride and proclaims that they're hoping soon it will be completely illegible.
- In one Zits comic, Walt reads Jeremy's shopping list and comes up with "lugnuts, musk ox, and sardine bras"note .
- Natasha Romanoff's natural handwriting in Bucky Barnes Gets His Groove Back & Other International Incidents is awful enough that she uses it as a layer of security when recording sensitive intel, combined with her own personal system of shorthand. The Mossad reportedly tried for over a year without success to crack one of her missives, without ever realizing that the "missive" was nothing more than her partner's lunch order.
- A Certain Droll Hivemind: Aino Sumiko, as noted in the second chapter, and it's given to a Third-Person Person that has a habit of Narrating the Present:
"Can you get me the stuff on this list?" she said, handing me a freshly written list. "I'll pay you back."
Her handwriting is not very good.
"'I can get such things,' Misaka confirms, though she struggles to read some of the things on the list," I said.
Aino put her hands on her hips — which are not very prominent — and glared up at me. "Are you trying to be funny?" she asked.
I did not answer. I do not know why people ask so many difficult questions.
- Discussed in chapter 7 of The Diplomat's Life. As in canon, Starswirl's hornwriting in his journal is pretty bad, but Starlight's seen worse and can actually understand it (and later, she starts copying it over to give the others an easier time of reading it). Meanwhile, Spike notes that one of Fluttershy's chickens could probably write clearer, and Tempest asks how Starswirl himself could understand it.
- In The First Saniwa, Yaobikuni is noted to write in all kanji, which is atypical of Heian women, in an indecipherable penmanship. Bonus points for her playing a medic/scientist role.
- In the Harry Potter fic, Run that by me again?, Hermione knows that Harry didn't enter himself in the Triwizard Tournament because the handwriting on the note is legible.
- Inverted in the Harry Potter fic Where Shadows Go, when the partner in Snape's Healer practice jokes that Snape can't be a "real doctor" because his handwriting is too legible.
- Justified in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, where Twilight Sparkle has to write something without using magic after being transformed into a human. How can someone be legible if they barely even know what hands are, let alone how to use a pen? She starts off writing with the pen in her mouth.
- In possibly the most memorable scene from Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, Virgil Starkwell's bank holdup is stalled when the tellers can't make out his robbery note:
Bank Teller #1: Does this look like "gub" or "gun"?
Bank Teller #2: Gun. See? But what does "abt" mean?
Virgil: It's "act". A-C-T. Act natural. Please put fifty thousand dollars into this bag and act natural.
Bank Teller #1: Oh, I see. This is a holdup?
- Dave Barry in Cyberspace claims that, though people learn to write neatly in "cursive" in childhood, their handwriting degenerates into random marks as they grow older. The typical example provided is a scribbled note allegedly written by President Harry Truman on August 3, 1945, intended to be an order of waffles for breakfast but interpreted as, "Let's drop the atomic bomb."
- In Experimental Film, Wrob Barney's handwriting is extremely hard to read, which isn't helped by what he calls uncontrollable hypographic pornocentrism, meaning a tendency to make sex-related misspellings.
- In Fire Engine By Mistake, the titular mistake happens because of the factory works manager's habit of writing eights which look like sixes.
- Learned Hallana from The Hallowed Hunt. Notably, as a sorceress-healer, she's one of the setting's most-advanced medical professionals.
Lewko: I pity the spy who had to decipher this.
Ingrey: Is it in code?
Lewko: No: Hallana's handwriting. Written in haste, I deem.
- Hagrid from Harry Potter has a primitive, childish handwriting due to the lack of education. (Also, giant hands.)
- Howl's Moving Castle: It is pointed out by Sophie and other characters that Howl cannot write in a way that another human being could read.
- If I Fall, If I Die: When Will starts school, his cursive resembles a seismogram. When he learns how to print legibly, his teacher calls it a minor miracle.
- In Two Worlds: Anthony has made a few attempts at communicating through writing, but his motor skills are so bad that the results look like he was using a five-foot-long pencil.
- A Kind of Spark: Thanks to her motor control problems, Addie has extremely poor handwriting, which results in Miss Murphy ripping up her story, throwing it away, and screaming at her for writing "lazily."
- According to Lobsang in The Long Earth, attempts to understand Willis Linsay's notes on alternate Earths have fallen foul of the man's handwriting as much as the fact that he was inventing his own mathematics as he went along and then writing that in code.
- In The Missing Piece of Charlie O'Reilly, all O'Reillys have the same hard-to-read handwriting. When Charlie finds a scrawled note in his backpack, he realizes it must be from his vanished brother Liam. It's actually from his Ret-Gone brother Jonathon.
- In one of Betty Neels's romance novels, her heroine is very frustrated while trying to read the hero's writing and claims that it looks like a spider fell in the inkwell and walked across the paper. Yes, the hero is a doctor.
- Nova from Planet Earth Is Blue is believed to be incapable of reading or writing. In fact, she can write, but her older sister Bridget is the only person who can read her handwriting. To everyone else, it just looks like meaningless scribbles.
- In Shtum, Georg's cancer destroys his ability to write beautiful cursive. His writing looks like it was done by a four-year-old on the Tube.
- An Unkindness of Ghosts: Aster's notes look like they were written by a two-year-old. Giselle is the only person who can read them, including Aster herself.
Theo: What language are you writing?
Theo: You invented a personal alphabet then?
Aster: It's the standard alphabet.
- In Blackadder, Blackadder pretends that this trope is in play in order to save his own skin. He receives orders to advance on the enemy but claims not to be able to understand them, because they're addressed to someone whose name appears to be "Catpain Blackudder".
- Bernard Black, title character of Black Books, has a handwritten list of rules on the chalkboard in his bookstore. Not even he can read past the first two.
Bernard: Look, it is perfectly simple. No mobiles. No walkmans. [long pause] None of that! Or any of the others!
- Curb Your Enthusiasm riffs on the old "illegible doctor's handwriting" concept. Larry spends the night with a doctor, which is oddly reminiscent of a doctor's exam from start to finish. In the morning, she leaves him a note that he can't read. He eventually realizes that the only people who can read doctors' notes are pharmacists, so he takes it to a pharmacist to read it to him, which causes a comical misunderstanding.
- Our Miss Brooks: In "Marinated Hearing", Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton struggle to read Bones Snodgrass's essay.
- On Roseanne, the Tom Arnold character Arnie is Put on a Bus and Roseanne shows his note to Dan.
Dan: Who are the Allens and why are they out of spice?
Roseanne: Aliens, Dan, from outer space.
Dan: ...Oh. Well, that makes more sense.
- Chris Kattan's recurring character Suel Forrester on Saturday Night Live is The Unintelligible, so people sometimes ask him to write down what he's saying, but his writing is no more comprehensible than his speech.
- In one episode of Seinfeld, Jerry wakes up from a dream laughing about something, scribbles it down on a note, and goes back to sleep. He can't read it in the morning and keeps asking practically anyone he meets what it says, and each person is certain that it says something different. In the end, it turns out that it reads "Sigmund's flaming balls". At this revelation, Jerry exclaims, "That's not funny at all!"
- On the Wings episode "Joe Blows", Brian has to decipher Faye's handwriting:
- "Monthly payment on plane overdue" reads like "Monty Python on flan omelet".
- "You haven't paid me, so either dump the attitude or I quit" reads like "You hairy pawed me, so Ethel rump the altitude oh be put".
- He gets better, but by the end still reads "I know we got off to a rocky start, but I think you're doing a great job" as "I know the goat is a roadie tart, but I bought your dog a grape jar".
- In I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Humph would rag on the producer Jon Naismith for his terrible handwriting, at one point claiming he needed to pin it up on a board and run past it to have any chance to understand it.
- Our Miss Brooks: In "Letter to the Education Board", Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton struggle to read Stretch Snodgrass's essay.
- Roman cursive was so notorious for its illegibility that it was joke fodder for ancient playwrights.
- In the final case of Ace Attorney Investigations, Larry Butz's bad handwriting turns out to be a plot point. When he tried to write "Mindy" on a love note, he wrote it so sloppily that it looked like "Wéndy" at first glance. Other characters initially thought that the note was for Wendy Oldbag.
- AkaSeka: Teika's constant boasting about the unrivaled beauty of his poetry would be a bit more believable had the calligraphy script he uses to write his poems not been nigh unreadable, as noted by the heroine.
- During a "Teach Me, Ms Litchi" segment of BlazBlue, Ragna says that Taokaka's handwriting looks like chicken scratch.
- A meta-example: Some earlier games by CAVE and Atlus have a copyright notice written in perfect English, except for the last sentence, which reads "Violator and subject to severe penalties and will be prosecutedt to the full extent of the jam." Over a decade later, CAVE's current CCO Tsuneki Ikeda conjectured that this was due to someone on their legal team having bad handwriting, since "law" can look like "jam" if the handwriting's messy enough.
- In Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, a prescription written by the habitually-drunk town doctor is completely illegible until an empty whiskey glass is used on it, prompting Freddy to remark that it must've been written while looking through the bottom of a whiskey glass as well.
- Billy from Kindergarten is this even by kindergartener standards. Both Ms. Applegate and Monty remark that his handwriting is atrocious, and it takes the latter until lunch to decipher a short note from him.
- In the Trainer House in Pokémon Gold and Silver, there's a book on the table on the ground floor. Upon reading it, your player makes a mental remark about how the writing looks like Onix tracks.
- Gaius has a Secret Diary in Rune Factory 3 that you can try to read, but you won't succeed. If he happens to catch you at it he'll admit that he can't always read it either.
- Walter Sullivan has fairly poor handwriting in Silent Hill 4: The Room, but it could perhaps be justified given the circumstances you find examples of it under — "Don't go out!" printed in blood on your front door; his diary etched into stones in the Forest world, which Henry can't read parts of but Eileen potentially can make out; and numbers carved into his murder victims which, to police at the time, looked like "01121" and its ilk rather than the "01/21" he intended.
- In El Goonish Shive, Mr. Edward Verres has "ink blot handwriting". It's not exactly illegible, but everyone who reads it thinks it says something different. On the next page, Justin offers another potential interpretation.
Justin: Maybe it's a map?
- When Sally needs help in class during chapter two of Sleepless Domain, Undine says she'd offer her notes, but Sally always makes fun of her handwriting. Sally replies that it's less "make fun of" and more "legitimately can't read". When shown, Undine's writing is improbably fancy.
- Serves as a Running Gag in the Black Jack Justice episode "The More Things Change". Jack and Trixie are hired by a woman who wants them to convince her aunt that the man she wants to marry is a good person. She suggests copious notes and that her aunt likes good penmanship. Jack retorts that they can do the former but she'll probably have to eat the latter. Jack later refers to the notes they're taking as a lot of not-very-much with bad penmanship to boot. During a discussion on the case later, Jack snarks at Trixie's notes.
Your penmanship is awful. Auntie Viv would be appalled.
- Chowder features the titular character, whose incomprehensible handwriting is a recurring gag. In the episode "Gazpacho Stands Up", he's tasked to take notes for Gazpacho as he finds material for his stand-up routine, creating problems since nobody except Chowder is able to read it. Mung tells him to practice his penmanship, and after doing so, congratulates him... for somehow making it worse.
- Dan Vs. goes back and forth on this. Various characters have stated that Dan's handwriting is horrible, yet any time his writing actually shows up, it's perfectly legible. Lampshaded (probably) in "Dan Vs. The Salvation Armed Forces", where Chris reads a letter from Dan, including the illegible parts ("...even thrumyurg betrayed me, with your cowardice and flurgle..."), only for the letter to show up on screen, with the "illegible" parts clearly written out. Of course, it's possible that it's only visible to the viewer because we're seeing the show's universe from Dan's perspective, and he can read it just fine.
- In Dave the Barbarian, Throktar's handwriting is so illegible that Fang fails to understand his warning about an enchanted pair of lederhosen.
- In one episode of Doug, the titular character loses his diar—journal, in which he writes the events of every episode. It's picked up by Roger, seemingly the worst person who could find it, but Roger gives it back unread, simply because he can't make out a word of Doug's cursive handwriting.
Roger: You call this handwriting? It's nothing but chicken scratches! If I were you, pal, I'd learn how to type, fast!
- Fillmore!: This is Student Council President Robert Chestnut's biggest character flaw. Vallejo jokes that he used to be called "Officer Chickenscratch" while he was a Safety Patroller, and the autograph he gave O'Farrell is read as "Romblo Chmangey". This was also his motivation for committing the crime of the episode: His poor penmanship botched an order for some novelty foam "We're #1" lobster claws so they instead read "We'ne #7". To avoid staining his perfect image and shaming his family's legacy, he discreetly disposed of the faulty shipment and made it look like they'd been stolen by a rival while he quietly ordered a replacement.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Shadow Play", Star Swirl the Bearded's "hornwriting" is so bad that Twilight remarks that it's "almost like another language". Starlight's is stated to be even worse, though this allows her to actually understand Star Swirl's writings.
- In one episode of Recess, TJ gets himself allowed to chew gum at school by presenting a fake doctor's note that's intentionally illegible, allowing him to fast-talk his way into having gingivitis and being prescribed medicinal gum.
- In Sheep in the Big City, General Specific's handwriting is implied to be this. Farmer John claims that it "looks like a chicken walked in ink."
- The Simpsons: Homer Simpson. In "Bart the Genius", Principal Skinner shows him an "obviously fake" parental note that Bart turned in, but discovers that Homer's handwriting really is that poor◊.
- In Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Buff Frog has extremely poor handwriting, which becomes a plot point when he sends Star a letter warning her of Ludo's return, but since she can't read it, she's completely unprepared. When confronted about it, he says he never went to school.
- Subverted in Steven Universe: Steven tries having a partially-healed Centipeedle write something, and she produces a bunch of scribbles. Except she was writing in the Gem language, which Pearl notes is surprisingly legible.
- The Weekenders: Carver's terrible handwriting is a Running Gag throughout the series:
- One episode features Carver attempting to send notes to their favourite band, Chum Bukkit, in various ways. The band interprets every one as some bizarre new lyric suggestions.
- Another time, he writes Tish an anonymous note about her new, unflattering hairstyle, and she understands most of it... except for one word — she ends up misreading "hair" as "frog". When confronted on his earlier statement that his handwriting has improved, Carver retorts that it has, because at least the other nine words in the note were legible.
- Doctors are notorious for having illegible handwriting. There are studies that show doctors do not write any more or less legibly than other professionals, but the consequences for illegible writing are much more severe. A popular alternative explanation is that it's an extension of skills learned in medical school, where students must take a lot of notes very quickly. The illegible handwriting is an unfortunate side effect. In any event, illegible handwriting is one of the reasons why there's a strong push for computerized medical records, charts, and prescriptions.
Of course, the prescription probably wouldn't make a lot more sense if it was professionally typeset, because physicians used a lot of Latin abbreviations. Pharmacists, who understand these, have a much easier time making it out, because while you're thinking "What the heck is this supposed to be; it looks like potid", the pharmacist knows that it is po tid, which means "per os (by mouth), tres in diem (three times a day)". Medical schools have begun recommending against the use of most of the Latin abbreviations (and, more stridently, against the use of archaic units of measure like grains, drams, scruples, or minims, for some of which the abbreviation is more of a squiggle than a letter), so to some extent this is going away.
Just to illustrate, the following is entirely intelligible to a pharmacist: glycerin 0.3% and propylene glycol 1% OTC soln 1-2 gtts OU q4-6h PRN #3 Refill 3 DAW. Even in electronic text, it looks like gibberish. note
- There's a condition called "dysgraphia" which can result in illegible handwriting without necessarily affecting intelligence or ability to read. Most dysgraphics are able to adjust by typing whatever they need to commit to paper, but this isn't always an option, forcing them to attempt to write by hand.
- Anyone who starts to fall asleep in class while still trying to take notes has probably ended up with this.
- This is a fairly common argument for allowing laptops in class, even in classes where laptops are not required for activities. Of course, not every instructor is in favor, arguing that students could distract themselves with social media, games, and the like instead of paying attention in class.
- The infamous note Oscar Wilde's lover's father passed to Wilde at a party. The handwriting became very important during Wilde's libel trial against the Marquess of Queensbury (the father). Wilde claimed that the note read "poncing sodomite" and the Marquess claimed it read "posing sodomite" (because as the line does not actually call Wilde gay — only "acting" gay — it is easier to defend in court).
- The Asian cursive script. The Chinese name for it, cǎoshū, literally means "sloppy script".
- German pharmacologist Otto Loewi had a dream that gave him a key insight into the mechanism by which nerve impulses travel across synapses. He wrote down the idea and went back to sleep... only to find himself unable to read the scribbled note in the morning. Fortunately, he had the dream again the next night; this time, he immediately went to the lab to do an experiment that confirmed his theory.
- Etienne Macdonald, a French general who served under Napoléon Bonaparte, wrote an account of a journey to Scotland he made in the 1820s; in a preface to a modern edition of the account, historian Jean-Didier Hache thanks Macdonald's granddaughter for making a copy of it, saying that "[Macdonald's manuscript] is hardly legible but by a confirmed archivist or paleograph, for it must be said that, in comparison with the Marshal's handwriting, the average doctor's prescription looks like an exercise in calligraphy◊."
- Speaking of Napoléon Bonaparte, he was famous for his own illegible handwriting. The difficulty of deciphering his words was compounded by the fact that French was actually his second language (after his native Corsican), and that he would sometimes mix up words such as "armistice" and "amnesty".
- Adolf Hitler had notoriously illegible handwriting, and one of the reasons why the now-discredited historian David Irving became respected in the first place is that he is one of the few people who can decipher it.note
- The Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) adopted a style of handwriting in mid-career that was a.) based on a particular form of German script and b.) absolutely microscopic, because Walser experienced anxiety when he wrote more legibly and also because he couldn't afford paper. The result is illegible to anyone who hasn't studied his handwriting. It got so small that he could fit an entire novel onto a dozen sheets of paper. Decades after his death, scholars are still having to make educated guesses as to what some of his sentences actually are.
- One of the main difficulties invoked by Caryl Chessman to appeal his death sentence for kidnapping was that the trial transcripts were written down by an alcoholic recorder related to the prosecutor. On 1957, the California Supreme Court had to conduct a full review of these before certifying they were accurate.
- Thomas Aquinas had borderline incomprehensible handwriting - here is a sample that made it viral online. No, Aquinas wasn't writing in Hebrew or Arabic - he was writing in Latin. If it wasn't for Dominican scribes after his time, we might not have been able to understand Aquinas at all.