Is there any phrase for describing when someone writes extremally illegibly?

In Poland it's called "physician's script", or there's an idiom "pisać jak kura pazurem", which literally means "to scribble like a chicken with claw".

It's very popular in Poland. Well, at least I've heard it on every occasion.

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    The same phrase is used in English "Doctor's Handwriting"
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 21, 2014 at 13:19

4 Answers 4


The English equivalent is similar: chicken scratch.

This would be a noun phrase to describe the writing, not the person, though, so an example would be:

"I can't read a word of John's chicken scratch. Can you translate it for me?"

  • 1
    You beat me to it! I was typing almost exactly the same thing. :) +1 Mar 21, 2014 at 13:20
  • Urban Dictionary: "Incredibly messy handwriting that is nearly impossible to read. Usually the only person who can read it is the person that wrote it. Sometimes not even they can read it after a while.". Yeah, it's me :D Mar 21, 2014 at 13:21
  • Also known as hen scratch writing. Presumably it comes from the randomish strokes left on the ground as a chicken attempts to unearth some morsel just under the surface.
    – Phil Perry
    Mar 21, 2014 at 17:01

I'll try for the term and not phrase. It is cacography

cacography - Poor handwriting. Cacography is from Greek κακός (kakos "bad") and γραφή (graphe "writing").

Sample of Cacography

And, if you are looking for a person with poor handwriting (the question before your edit), it can be derived from the same word - cacographer. Though I'm not sure whether it's accepted worldwide.

Edit: Okay, Wiktionary has it - cacographer

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    It's not an everyday word (or even a manyday word), but I don't think that's reason enough for someone to downvote. I upvoted to bring it back to zero. (It might be worth noting that cacography can also refer to poor spelling.)
    – user230
    Mar 21, 2014 at 13:43
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    As a fairly well-read native English speaker, I don't think I've ever heard this word before. "Chicken scratch" however is a very common phrase.
    – swbarnes2
    Mar 21, 2014 at 16:11
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    I know, but the purpose of communication is for people to understand you. If you use a word that no one understands, you haven't actually communicated. I think a language student ought to know the difference between a word/phrase they just didn't know, but that most native speakers do, and a word/phrase so vanishingly rare that virtually no speakers use, or even understand it.
    – swbarnes2
    Mar 21, 2014 at 19:02
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    I agree with the comment left by @swbarnes2 - this is NOT an everyday word, and, given the purpose of this site, an English language learners ought to be informed of that. Most people on the street (since you've grown to loathe the word "native" in your comments) would look at me with a blank stare if I used it.
    – J.R.
    Mar 21, 2014 at 19:02
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    @J.R. nevertheless, word worth knowing, and German people, for example, would understand it even hearing it first time in life, I suppose :) Mar 22, 2014 at 7:07

In the US at least there is also the stereotype that doctors have horrible handwriting as well, and you can tell someone they could be a Doctor with that handwriting, or something to that effect.


In Scotland we say "like a hen pissing in snow", but I wouldn't recommend using it in polite company!

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