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.”