Within reach

Before I push the rant of the day out, a brief announcement.

If you’re a frequent flyer on this blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve stopped posting new stories on Sundays. After a year and a half of strictly daily blogging, I thought I’d loosen the grip a little bit, especially as more work assignments and life commitments have recently started eating away the edges of my time availability.

To be available is to be within reach. To touch with the hand. A hand within reach is a hand ready to write, to serve, to answer the call of duty. The Romans had a word for the available hand, ready to take notes, to record one’s thoughts on paper (actually papyrus), to defy the cruel entropy of vanishing sound.

This word was amanuensis. While it is still extant in English and Danish, it doesn’t seem to have been extremely widespread in Latin. It’s a dis legomenon, a word appearing only twice, in Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, and only there. A rarity given a new lease of life in the modern period, since the word is first attested in English in 1619.

Culturally, an amanuensis is a secretary, a copyist, someone who takes down your notes and converts sound into script. Etymologically, amanuensis is the reduction of a manu servus, the slave ‘from/of the hand’. Talk to the hand!

The word may have made its way into English via Suetonius directly, since the record of its circulation in other Latin texts than Suetonius’ in 17th century England approaches zero. Unlike other Latin words, amanuensis didn’t make it into Italian, French or Spanish.

A rarity indeed, but still within grasp.

A poorly-documented hypothesis has it that the origin of the word has nothing to do with writing, but everything to do with shadowing. An amanuensis would have been a slave ‘within hand’s reach’, a kind of good-for-all slave, a factotum – the Latin is unavoidable – always ready to help, to give a helping hand, from within hand’s reach. This meaning, if it ever had currency, was lost on us. Even the word amanuensis itself is becoming vintage, as fewer and fewer of us ever have need of one. It now survives as the name of a scholarly project, a piece of software for researching Roman Law.

But aren’t Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant latter-day amanuenses?

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