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What is an Amanuensis?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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An amanuensis is someone who takes dictation, transcribes written material, or assists in some other way with written or hand-performed work. For example, in an academic setting, an amanuensis might take notes for a disabled student, or assist him or her with papers, examinations, and similar tasks. The function of an amanuensis varies widely, depending on the context and the nation. In some countries, for example, the position of amanuensis is formalized, much like that of a secretary or personal assistant, while in other countries, the term is used more casually.

This term derives from the Latin servus a manu, literally “servant at hand,” a reference to the personal secretaries who accompanied high-ranking Romans. These secretaries would take dictation, deliver messages, and provide a wide variety of other secretarial services, including translation. Many of them were educated Greek slaves, although some freed Romans also worked in this position, and an amanuensis often came to be a trusted and valued member of the household staff.

Over time, the term came to refer to anyone who did work by hand, or who performed manual labor. An amanuensis could work in a medieval scriptorium, for example, copying manuscripts for distribution, or as a scribe in a marketplace, writing and reading letters for people who were illiterate. Although an amanuensis wouldn't work creatively, he or she would need to be highly educated in order to write, read, and communicate in multiple languages, and many amanuenses had a variety of secretarial skills.

Some people still use the term to refer to a personal secretary, especially one who has worked for his or her employer for a very long time. High-ranking secretaries and clerks may be formally referred to as amanuenses in some regions of the world, and the term is also used to describe copyists who work for composers, skilled copyists, and people who transcribe dictated or longhand material from writers, doctors, and others.

Depending on where one lives, it is sometimes possible to see job openings for an amanuensis, especially in the case of someone who is looking for a long-term personal assistant or secretary who can become almost like a member of the family. In other regions, this term is not used formally in job listings or descriptions, with terms like “personal assistant,” “head clerk,” or “personal secretary” being more common. A modern amanuensis may also be more likely to perform work with a computer, typewriter, or copy machine, rather than by hand.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By PinkLady4 — On Sep 18, 2011

Picture a scribe working in the busy marketplaces around the world in medieval times. There were many people who could not read or write during these times. Yet they needed to make acounting records for their business, they needed contracts to be written up in order to trade with others.

I imagine the amanuensis who wrote to fulfill other people's personal needs must have really been sought after and were paid a good amount. They, no doubt, worked long hours.

By Esther11 — On Sep 17, 2011

I think that the term "amanuensis" has probably pretty much dropped out of use in America. We use other words depending on the situation, like note taker, personal assistant or secretary. They probably use it in some European countries, as the word has a more formal connotation.

I think that it is great that some of you are taking notes for disabled students. When my daughter was in college, she had a job attending football player's classes and writing down brief notes and assignments as a backup for the unfocused players.

By Saraq90 — On Sep 16, 2011

I was an amanuensis in college and did not even know it until a few minutes ago! I would take notes in one of my history classes for someone who was blind.

I did not get paid for it, so it was more like volunteer work. My teacher just asked if someone would take quality notes for themselves and the person in our class who needed them so she could have them transferred to brail later.

I am sure my teacher was more apt to accept me as the amanuensis considering I was almost always taking notes. So my experience in it was of an informal nature.

It was very easy to do. I already loved to write and didn't mind taking notes. I just had to remember to put a piece of carbon paper underneath my page of notes, which got easier with time.

The notes benefitted not only me, but also another person in my class, so I was very careful to not leave out anything important. I hope that those notes helped the student understand the material and pass the tests and assignments well.

I would do this again, even just as volunteer work, if I am ever given or stumble upon the opportunity again.

By MissDaphne — On Sep 15, 2011

I think now the term might be used almost more ironically or as a joke. It's one of those old-sounding big words you can bust out to make something sound funnier, like when you say "asconded with" for "stole."

So instead of saying something like "He was sleeping with his secretary," you could say "As it turned out, his relationship with his amanuensis went beyond the strictly professional." Some words seem to stay around just because they sound funny!

By wavy58 — On Sep 15, 2011

My sister is an amanuensis, and she basically handles all the writing, typing, and translating for the office. She majored in English in college, so she is well trained.

She also studied quite a bit of Spanish, so she is fluent in it, and this helped her land the position. A lot of Mexican customers come through the front office, and she is the only one there who can understand and help them.

She was even able to save the other employees from danger once. A Mexican man came in and stated that a fire burning down the street was moving their way. She told everyone to evacuate the building. If she hadn’t been there, no one would have known what he was saying.

By Oceana — On Sep 14, 2011

When my brother broke his right arm in a fall, my mother hired an amanuensis to help him get through the school year. Though some people are ambidextrous, he simply cannot write legibly with his left hand, so he had to have help.

The amanuensis was great at taking notes. She wrote down everything that might possibly be important. When it came time for him to write an essay, he spoke it out loud while she typed it. He told me that she typed even more quickly than he could form thoughts.

During tests, the teachers allowed her to write in the answers as he whispered them to her. With multiple choice questions, all he had to do was point. The teachers watched closely, making sure that she didn’t offer any help other than writing. She didn’t speak at all during tests.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 13, 2011

I am an amanuensis, and my main responsibility is taking notes at the many meetings conducted in our office. I got hired because of my ability to write fast, as well as to type up documents quickly with few errors.

I am the only one who has to read my notes, so they don’t have to be perfect. When I type up the summary of the meeting, I make it formal and structured.

I take care of anything that needs to be written by hand, like messages or forms. I have very legible handwriting, and I also have good grammar skills.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 13, 2011

I worked as an amanuensis and I didn’t even know it at the time! I just called myself a typist, and that’s what my employer called me as well.

He wrote books, but he neither any typing ability nor a computer. So, he would give me several chapters at a time written in a notebook with a pen, and I would type them on my computer. I printed them out for him, but I also kept them saved for later use.

I ended up being the one who emailed publishers electronic copies of the book. I also emailed it to the copyright office for him.

By animegal — On Sep 12, 2011

How cool! I should totally use this word on my resume. I work for several companies as a virtual assistant and I take a lot of dictation, so I could certainly qualify -- I think this could be a great way to stand out from all the other assistants when I'm finding new clients.

By letshearit — On Sep 12, 2011

When I was in university there was quite a demand for those that were willing to do amanuensis for the disabled students at our school. The job paid fairly well and the school provided all the students who signed up with training, so that they could take ideal notes for the person they were helping.

The student web service at our school allowed people to upload their notes for quality control before it was handed over to the students who needed them. The student web also had a lot of new job postings, so if anyone got tired of amanuensis, they could just switch to another position.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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