Seeing Shorthand.

posted in: Day In The Life 10
From website, " A Web Site [sic] dedicated to the perpetuation of Gregg’s Light-Line Phonography". Translation below.
From “A Web Site [sic] dedicated to the perpetuation of Gregg’s Light-Line Phonography” at Translation below.
Stop everything.


I’m freaking out.

At a cocktail party-ish gathering last week, I met two extremely accomplished women who shared with me that early in their respective careers they used to take shorthand dictation, also called stenography. I asked lots of questions that I have since had to look up the answers to (#wine) but I did manage to force them to write something for me in shorthand that I could keep. This was not because I didn’t believe they could do it — I suspect both women drive very nice cars — but because I had to see shorthand in action. I had only a vague notion of what the stuff looked like; I mistakenly thought there were English words interspersed with jots and tittles and such. When I saw the strange, magical scribbles on their napkins, my mouth dropped open.

Here are X things you should know about shorthand, most of which I have gleaned from a fascinating essay by one Ms. Leah Price about the history of shorthand in the December 2008 Diary section of The London Times, which you should promptly search for and read after you’re done here:

1) Diarists and court reporters have used versions of shorthand for a really, really long time. Samuel Pepys (b.1633), considered the world’s first diarist/journal-keeper, wrote his thoughts and feelings in a form of shorthand. (I’ve read a lot about Pepys, as when I get back to my MLA, my dissertation is going to explore the diary as literary form.)

2) We all probably know graph = writing, but steno = narrow. How about that?

3) Issac Pitman codified (hey-o) the Pitman shorthand system that was taught for well over 100 years before there was any major competition.

4) In 1922, a guy named Nathan Behrin set the world’s record with the Pitman system, writing 350 words per minute. Three-hundred-fifty words per minute. Per minute!

5) Miss stenography? Blame the typewriter.

Forget my dream to learn French. Forget taking time to learn Russian so I can tell Yuri in his native language to please pick up some milk. I want to learn shorthand bad. Apparently, it takes three years. But I could write in my diary in this cool way! Oh, I rail against you, life, so short and so long.

At the party, I asked both of the women to write, “Dear PaperGirl Reader: This is shorthand. It is a dying language, but it is still beautiful. You’re welcome, [NAME]” I still have both examples and would’ve scanned them in to serve as the image for this post, but my scanner is in a box at the FedEx right now, waiting for me to come pick it up. Instead, the image above is translated for you here; it totals 227 words.

“If agreeable to you I hope you will sign the enclosed agreement for the agricultural lands about which Mr. Teller wrote some time ago.  The land company has been very aggressive, a fact which greatly aggravated Mr. Teller.

We do not anticipate that our antagonists in this controversy will be able to restrain Mr. Hollis in his aggressive views. We decline to take any part in the preparation of the declaration about which Mr. Henderson declaims so forcefully. He was inclined to antagonized rather than to electrify his audience by the out of his oratory.

Owing to the inclement weather I am inclined to agree with you that we shall have to declare
the game off for this week.

The magnitude of the magnificent construction enterprise introduced by Mr. MacIntosh was declared to be extraordinarily interesting.

Electric transportation is paralyzed all over the state, and it will be almost impossible to undertake the shipment of your goods for at least two or three weeks.

The eccentric individual rambled on uninterruptedly for what seemed an interminable time.

His unparalleled unselfishness and self-control were revealed in his disinterested discussion of the event. Miss Carew undertook to alter the paragraph about postage, which turned out the be a paramount issue in the controversy. The postmaster at Sarnia displayed great self-control and self-possession in the circumstances.”


10 Responses

  1. Rosanne
    | Reply

    That looks way too much like Tee line short hand not Pitman. It was developed to teach journalists to take rapid quotes at interview. I learnt that 20 years ago and its something I would love to restart. It is an ace skill to have when taking classes.

  2. Gay Barrett
    | Reply

    Mary, I work with someone that uses shorthand for meeting minutes. It is impressive to watch and more impressive to see the resulting typed minutes from Cindy’s “doodles”.

    As for me, I took three years of it in high school. Ask me how much I remember? Zilch, zero, nada, not one word. Mrs. Wittman has to be looking down from Heaven, shaking her head, and giving the scholarly “tsk tsk”.

  3. Mary Ann
    | Reply

    My secretary still takes notes in shorthand although she is now known as an Administrative Assistant much to her chagrin. Her role has changed so much over time but I would be lost without her even if I now answer my own phone and do email. I work at a very large company and the administrative world was always ranked by who did and didn’t take shorthand and matched the hierarchy in power….actually we all knew the secretaries were more powerful. And who knows what they had to say about us all in their very beautiful and secret language.

  4. Joan
    | Reply

    I graduated in 1965 (yes I am old) and for my first 7 to 10 years my job as “secretary” was taking shorthand and then transcribing these notes on a manual typewriter. Duplicate copies meant many sheets of carbon paper and a prayer that you would make few errors. For the next several years I used it occasionally and then not at all. I was very good at it then. Technology progressed over the years (thank goodness). I tried to read the above words and apparently it is gone – erased from my head. When my boys were little I used to write their Christmas list in shorthand and leave them lay around. It totally left them in a state of frustration.

  5. Annie
    | Reply

    Hi Mary,
    This shorthand is Gregg not Pittman. Pittmas is done with shading of the strokes…I believe much harder. I took Gregg in high school (1964) and used it for many years in my “secretarial” jobs. There was nothing worse then the “boss” saying “bring your book” or “take a letter.” ha ha.

    Of course I can’t read a word of it now (50 years later) but I do wish I had kept it up.

    Thanks for the memories!

    • Mary Fons
      | Reply

      Considering the comments, I should add a sixth thing to know about shorthand: apparently, everyone hated doing it. Maybe I don’t need to learn it, after all. 😉

  6. Kelley
    | Reply

    Mary, I really like your blog, but I have to say the tags are freakin’ HILARIOUS! OMG! I’ve just kind of noticed them and now I they are my favourite part!

  7. Taylor
    | Reply

    Court reporters are the bread and butter of shorthand… The certification requires 225 wpm at 98% accuracy. And they have those weird-cool shorthand typewriter like machines… 🙂

    As a side note, I developed my own version of shorthand when I was in college (call it a mix of medical abbreviations and my own abbreviations (why is abbreviation so long?). When I did my job in law enforcement (cold case homicide), I was often asked to sit in on meetings that had nothing to do with my job so that I could take notes. Sooooo because of my ability to take quick notes, I was able to sit in on some pretty loaded meetings about cases that most weren’t allowed at because of the “nature” of their content. Pretty cool! 🙂

  8. Robert J. Davey
    | Reply

    I am a journalist living in the States, looking for someone who can teach me shorthand. I have a book on Gregg, but I noticed that Gregg has been “simplified,” meaning a lot of the original symbols have disappeared, meaning the system is less efficient and versatile.

    I don’t mind a complex system so long as it’s effective, so that, once mastered, taking verbatim notes during an interview would never be a problem. I once tried a speedwriting course but dropped it because there were too many ambiguities and I worried I’d never be able to depend on it.

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