Take a memo, Miss Jones

Take a memo, Miss Jones

One centuries-old skill which seems doomed to disappear with the development of voice recognition programmes is the ability to take notes in shorthand. Shorthand, also known as brachygraphy, stenography and tachygraphy, was once an essential, sought-after skill.  A typical shorthand system is a set of symbols or abbreviations for words and common phrases, which can allow someone well-trained in the system to write as quickly as people speak. 

Not so very long ago, a decent speed on your curriculum vitae a ticket to a well-paid secretarial position. This was measured in words-per-minute and a speed of 120 words-per-minute was quite common. Not bad with a no-tech paper and pencil!

Most historians date the advent of shorthand back to the Greek historian Xenophon, who wrote the memoirs of Socrates using an ancient Greek system. The Romans had their own method, but like so many other useful inventions and branches of knowledge, it became associated with witchcraft and magic during the Middle Ages in Europe and disappeared.

Perhaps the most famous system of shorthand for the English language was the prestigious Pitman method, developed by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897). It has been the most popular shorthand system used in the United Kingdom and the second most popular in the United States since 1996.

One popular job for women in the 1950s that has almost disappeared in its previous form was that of the shorthand typist. Before the dawn of the digital era, most professional men employed a ‘Girl Friday’ to take dictation and type their correspondence for them which for some reason was not considered a dignified task for men. Nowadays, this is a chore they are expected to take care of themselves. In most cases, the role of the shorthand-typist has disappeared or evolved into that of the personal assistant, who is expected to do far more complex tasks than taking dictation and typing letters.

Nowadays, some people think that shorthand is still valuable for taking notes in professions like journalism, while others believe it is a waste of time. The skill was invaluable when I was a student and taking notes during lectures. Reading them back and writing them out in full was an excellent way of revising the content and was far more effective for committing the content to memory than just typing them up from a recording, in my opinion. However, I would never dare to take notes in shorthand in a language other than English in case I couldn’t read it back. Give me a trusty voice recorder any day!


Juliet Allaway


Written by editor