A Word for Wednesday

Amanuensis - n, [L. from manus, hand] A person whose employment is to write what another dictates.

Apparently, this word has it's origin in ancient Rome. It was first used to describe a slave who was at his master's personal service - 'within hand reach,' performing any command. The literal translation of the original Latin means "servant from the hand." Later, the application narrowed and the word was applied only to intimately trusted servants who served as personal secretaries to their masters.

It's most modern use seems to be in reference to or dealing with slavery in the United States. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature defines it this way: "Pertinent especially to exslaves' narratives of bondage in antebellum and postbellum United States. An amanuensis was a person who produced written accounts of orally narrated stories of black life in slavery. Some amanuenses completely reconstructed the life story of a formerly enslaved person; most proclaimed the resulting narrative to be a faithful depiction of the black narrator's story."

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature says, "The employment of an amanuensis was a way in which slaves could document their experiences by relating their stories to a person who would record and write down their narrative. However, since the slave narrating the story could not read what the amanuensis wrote, stories related by slaves could be edited or changed in order to cater to a specific audience or book publisher. Thus the employment of an amanuensis could ultimately complicate or call into question the truth of that experience."

Can you imagine being the one doing the dictating to an amanuensis? Whether you were a Roman master or a newly freed slave, you would be entrusting matters of import to someone who was effectively a stranger. Until the word's application evolved to applying to intimately trusted servants, all those Romans were dictating their communications to whichever slave could write. And they had to go forward on the assumption that their thoughts were accurately transmitted. Can you imagine dispatching something, from letter to manuscript, without verifying it's contents? Without even being capable of verifying the contents? They probably didn't even think about it. They probably just assumed that their slaves would do what they ought to do and that was it. It's easy to look back at history and see how much power amanuensis' had to manipulate events if they chose to. I wonder how many masters worried over that. And how many amanuensis thought to use their ability to write to undermine their masters. No doubt, there were slaves who loved their masters and would never think of betraying them. But I'm also sure that there were slaves who hated their masters and would use any means in their power to take measures into their own hands. Does it make you wonder? Or is it just me? I think it's fascinating, from both vantage points.

Now let's hope I can make that fascination at least somewhat productive...


That's all he ever said to summon me. My name. One word and I was to follow. So follow I did, promptly and without dropping my writing utensils on the way as I had done at the first.

It wasn't my true name. He didn't even know my true name. No one in the entire city did. He only knew three things about me: that I was a Britain, that I could write in Roman letters, and that I was his slave. And all those things were true. I was his amanuensis. But there are more than three things to any man, even, perhaps especially, an enslaved one.

He reached for the clasp on his cloak and I clambered to set up my parchment. Why the man could not pause a step before he began his oratory I still did not understand, but understanding the man was hardly required of me. Only my services were. He tossed his cloak aside as he took his stance; right hand on his hip, left foot out in front of his body, back straight, head high.

"To the Tribunal..." he began and I began to scribble, matching the scratch of my pen to the march of his voice.


  1. I like the little beginning there. And it is an interesting word. I'm not sure that I would trust something to a stranger, but still something to think about how it used to be done. :)

  2. wow! That's crazy! I never knew that! It's certainly a challenge to write over something like that, but it could make an interesting character!

  3. I totally dig this word and only discovered it about a year ago, but I had no idea on its origins. Very cool!

  4. Wow. Imagine the power an amanuensis had in his hand. I share your wonder. Thanks for another thought-provoking word of the day. :)

  5. Krista - Thanks :) Same here. I'm so used to writing my own communications that the idea of dictating and not being able to write myself is a completely foreign idea

    Ashley - Me either! That's the fun of discovering new words ;)

    Mark - WWhere did you discover it? Were you looking for it in particular or did you just stumble upon it like I did?

    Cherie - I know, right? It's really something to think about. I'm glad to share it :)

  6. I actually discovered the word while reading an old regimental history from the civil war. Apparently a soldier had his wife act as amanuensis.

  7. Wow! Great new word. Thanks for the heads up! BTW, I'm giving you an award on my blog tomorrow, so stop by if you have time. :)

  8. Thanks, Anita! I'll be stopping by tormorrow or Friday :)


Do share your thoughts - I enjoy reading them :)