“Engage the minds and hands of people,” said Mahatma Gandhi in order for the nation to prosper in peace. Hands-on skills help human beings lead fulfilling lives and further to self-realisation. But advancing technology, in its quest for giving comfort, has killed many of the human skills. Nowadays people type, design, draw and mix colours on computers rather than using their hands. Where is the ‘human touch'?

Another skill which is dying in the offices is stenography. With computers on each executive's desk, we see everywhere the secretaries directly typing into a document or mail. Managers without stenos manage with ‘one-finger typing.' The day is not far off when bosses will dictate directly to the computer and it will ‘understand' and produce the document or communicate! Before it becomes too late, let us look at the skill of stenography. Or is it an art form — looking at the noodle-shaped jottings of stenographers?

Can you imagine an emperor learning shorthand? Believe it or not, Roman Emperors did learn stenography, though this art was in its infancy. Shorthand was taught in schools and used officially in the Roman Senate as far back as 63 B.C. The earliest stenographer was none other than Julius Caesar! But the system of shorthand was designed by Tullius Tiro, in Rome; historians trace its origin further back to Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians and Greeks. In Indian mythology, Lord Ganesha was the earliest stenographer when he wrote the Mahabharata ‘dictated' by Sage Vyasa.

Cultural tool

Shorthand has been a cultural tool for centuries. As a matter of fact, George Bernard Shaw wrote his plays in shorthand, Martin Luther's sermons and Shakespeare's plays were all preserved by using shorthand. Before becoming a famous author, Charles Dickens learnt stenography and earned his living for some time as a newspaper reporter!

Known also as phonography, tachygraphy and brachygraphy, shorthand is an art of recording the sounds using symbols. A magic of transforming spoken words into beautiful written material, the modern system of shorthand, as it is known today, was developed by Sir Issac Pitman in 1837. But these days, every steno is a ‘Pitman' (or Pitwoman) because, he/she makes up his/her own symbols and outlines.

Therefore, one steno cannot transcribe another's noting. The reason is, each steno has his or her own characteristic way of writing outlines and joining/disjoining those, which he or she alone can decipher. What's more, he/she may not be able to transcribe it himself/herself, the next day! Here, stenography resembles steganography, meaning the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one understands (including the writer, in this case!).

Mantra of success

The secret mantra of success for a steno is “Speed & Accuracy.” To achieve speed, easy short forms are used for lengthy repetitive phrases. Dictations generally begin with a bang! The so-called ‘great dictators' start at supersonic speeds throwing you out of gear, but may soon struggle for words and end up like a goods train. What you need in the beginning is speed and later, patience. In any case, catching the boss' style will make things easier. You should be able to rightly guess what he meant by ‘conversation' was in fact ‘conservation' and what you heard as ‘push top' was a mere ‘full stop'. This ‘phonetic mix-up' leads to a lot of gaffe in the office.

When a steno goes with errors in a letter, the boss advises “A good steno corrects the mistakes of his/her boss..,” meaning he/she is not one. On the other hand, if he/she tried to simplify a long-winding sentence, he may shout back: “Don't try to change what I have dictated.” After all, he is the boss… and as you know, “The boss is always right!”

(The writer's email is jjeyes@rediffmail.com)

Keywords: Stenos' job

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