It doesn’t matter how old you get, there is always something new to learn. Sometimes these new things are words or concepts you have heard all your life, but perhaps you never understood. Learn Something New is a series that will highlight some of the things I learn, big and small in the coming days. — Douglas
I have come across this word several times in the last few months and while it is somewhat easy to figure out its meaning via context, it was unknown enough to me to send me scrambling for my Google Search to delve into it a bit farther. This “Use over Time” chart from Google seems to indicate that the usage of the word is slightly on the rise, which may account for the multiple times I have bumped into it in newly released books including the book mentioned in the last Learn Something New post, The Swerve.
So, what is Amanuensis? The quick and dirty answer is “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” In context of my reading, it also seems to be more generically applied as meaning “a right hand man” or a dedicated assistant. Like a lot of Latin terms, it even pops up in Harry Potter in the name of a shop in Diagon Alley, Amanuensis Quills. It is always interesting to see an archaic term like this come back into usage. It also points out the packrat nature of English to absorb and use words from all sorts of different languages.
The word originated in ancient Rome, for a slave at his master’s personal service “within hand reach”, performing any command; later it was specifically applied to an intimately trusted servant (often a freedman) acting as a personal secretary.
A similar semantic evolution occurred at the French royal court, where the secrétaire de la main du roi, originally a lowly clerk specializing in producing, at royal command, the Sovereign’s signature on more documents than he cared to put his pen to, developed into the secrétaires d’état, the first permanent portfolio ministers, to which the British Secretaries of State would be the counterpart.
More information on Syllabus and other Word Origins:
Previously on Learn Something New: