Shorthand as a Second Language

published in Door is a Jar Literary Magazine – Fall 2019

Shorthand as a Second Language

 I was steered into a commercial track in high school, office skills classes—typing, shorthand, bookkeeping—that would qualify me for a “pink collar” job. It was a respectable path for working-class women in the early sixties, a step above shop, restaurant, or factory work.

I took to the program as if born to it. I was the fastest typist in my class, clocked at more than a hundred words a minute on clunky manual Underwood typewriters, but it was Gregg shorthand that won my heart. The phonetic system of dots and dashes, swoops and curves, loops and hooks, each symbol coded to a letter, word, or phrase, became my own silent language. At home I practiced with radio and TV announcers for fun. In class we were expected to take dictation at 80 to 120 words a minute and transcribe it accurately; certificates were awarded for achievement. I topped out at 160 in tests, higher in class exercises. It was a keen competition among classmates, but the real thrill was surpassing my previous bests, setting new personal records like a marathon runner.

The Roman slave Marcus Tullius Tiro developed the Tironian shorthand system in 63 BCE to record Cicero’s speeches. Early systems in English date back to the 16th century. Thomas Shelton’s Tachygraphy counted Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson among its eminent users. Gregg shorthand, invented in 1888 by Irish immigrant John Gregg, became the dominant form in the U.S., while the earlier Pitman system was more popular in the U.K. Teeline, spelling-based rather than phonetic, was developed in the 1960s and used primarily by journalists. Speedwriting and Stenoscript use letters of the alphabet to abbreviate words and phrases, like texting today. Dozens of other forms, in numerous languages, were created before the advent of dictating and recording machines. Then computers, which led to a decrease in the use of written shorthand in the workplace and the cessation of classes in secondary and vocational schools.

Gregg Shorthand uses lines and strokes of varying lengths for each letter of the alphabet, with standard abbreviations—called brief forms—for most articles and pronouns and for commonly used words and phrases, like “please,” “sincerely yours,” and “thank you very much.” The brief forms are the system’s key feature, since approximately 60% of spoken English consists of around 600 common words. Users frequently develop their own shortcuts for terms they use frequently. Gregg was revised several times, as late as 1988, adding and changing abbreviations to facilitate greater speed and precision. In competitions, Gregg champions reached 280 words a minute with 99% accuracy. But how fast did the rest of us, the everyday users, need to be? The average person speaks only 125 to 150 words per minute.

Over the next twenty years I held positions that ranged progressively from clerk-typist to executive secretary. My bosses—all male in those days—were confident that all they had to do was speak, and minutes later their words would appear almost magically before them on company letterhead, attractively typed and error-free, margins and spacing just so. With shorthand I could catch their halfway-out-the-door requests too—call so-and-so, write a thank you letter to John Doe, send flowers to my wife (yes, we did that back then)—as they headed off to their three-martini lunches.

Shorthand came in handy in my everyday life as well. Not least of all, I could make private notes, undecipherable to others. My daughter was a pop music buff from the age of ten, long before the internet and You Tube, and she would call out urgently when a favorite song came on the radio. “Mom, quick, copy down the words for me!” In early Peanuts cartoon strips, Snoopy would dictate, and Woodstock, his little yellow bird buddy, would scribble squiggly hieroglyphics on a miniature steno pad. It was Gregg shorthand, in flawless accuracy, and, like a party trick, I’d amuse family and friends by translating Snoopy’s consumer complaints and love letters. Years later, an on-screen page of shorthand notes in an episode of Mad Men had me baffled. It appeared in the opening scene as a reporter interviews Don Draper. I froze the screen repeatedly but couldn’t make sense of the almost-but-not-quite-familiar doodles. I finally decided it must be Teeline or Pitman or “stage shorthand” (i.e., fake); it couldn’t be Gregg.

I wasn’t able to maneuver myself onto an executive track like Peggy in Mad Men or Donna in Suits, so after two decades of “take a letter” and “pick up my dry-cleaning,” I enrolled at San Diego State University. Working part time, my skills supported me through five years of school, and shorthand was my well-honed weapon. My younger classmates looked on with envy as I took fast and fluent lecture notes. With my master’s degree I re-entered the working world  in nonprofit management, where shorthand continued to be useful, at meetings, on the phone, jotting down my own on-the-fly reminders.

I’m retired now and writing. Shorthand notes still inhabit my calendar, to-do lists, notebooks and drafts. A few quick strokes on a cocktail napkin or a Trader Joe’s receipt enable me to capture the elusive idea that flashes into my head and might slip away if I wait too long. Gregg shorthand is embedded permanently in my brain—I even catch myself thinking in it. Like the Pig Latin and “obby-dobby” we spoke in elementary school to keep secrets from the boys, Gregg is a foreign language at which I’m proficient; now I need to find others with whom to converse.