Still Waters: Like a secret language

Someone sitting next to me in a meeting might look over at my shorthand notes and make a comment like, “My grandmother used to do that. I haven’t seen that in years.” No offense taken. I’m probably as old as his grandmother.

In fact, I usually respond, “Yep, that’s how old I am.”

It’s true that shorthand is a lost art, no longer taught in schools as far as I know. I learned it back in the late 1970’s (thank you Miss Bateman, wherever you are) and am able to still use it now only because I kept up with it during all the intervening years, first taking notes in college and then in my work as a reporter.

I had to think in shorthand, just like folks learning English, Spanish, German, French, etc., have to start thinking in that language to become fluent in it. I remember when I was taking the class in high school (which was initially just to fill a hole in my schedule, but I’m so glad I did) I would mentally “write” the lyrics in my head to music that was playing on records, dialogue being spoken on television or just conversations. It can be maddening to have all these symbols swirling through your head when someone’s talking, but that’s what it took to get the mastery of it.

It’s another language, and if we don’t use our skills in the languages we have learned, we tend to lose them. I also learned Spanish in high school but did not have as much occasion to use it then as I do now, so I am not nearly as fluent in it as I am in shorthand. I can pick up quite a few words when people are talking but certainly can’t speak it that well. “Ay caramba” is a phrase I’ve used enough over the years and one most folks know, especially if they ever saw “The Simpsons.”

At any rate, it sounds cool to say I’m multilingual, but the truth is I can butcher English with the best of them, can pick up enough Spanish to know if I’m being insulted and can still take pretty good notes in shorthand. My handwriting is so abysmal that the shorthand is usually easier to read later.

Plus it’s faster. John Robert Gregg, who invented the shorthand named after him in 1888, was a genius in using lines and curves as linguistic shortcuts. One line could denote an entire word, and a few strokes could capture an entire phrase or sentence. It’s pretty cool really.

Another cool thing about shorthand, especially since so few people use it or know it anymore, is that it’s like my secret language. I could write something less than flattering to help me remember someone at a meeting, and that person would never know I just called him an “old bald guy.” And who would know if I was taking notes or doodling during a boring meeting? I usually do take notes, even during the boring meetings, to keep my mind on the subject, sometimes just to keep from falling asleep and because you never know when someone might say something worth quoting.

Sometimes the conversations become so animated it’s hard to keep up. I remember long-time court reporter Catherine Rodriguez would sometimes interrupt attorneys who started talking too fast to ask them to slow down or repeat something. Her type of “shorthand,” using a special machine, was beyond me, and I always admired her skill at capturing everything going on in the courtroom. I didn’t envy her job. I don’t get every word, but I don’t need to. I can get the gist of a meeting or proceeding and fill it in with a few quotes. She was a master of her trade and a few years ago was recognized as earning the Certified Realtime Reporter certification, which meant that attorneys in the courtroom could read on their computer screens what she was typing on her stenographic machine. That was pretty awesome!

Catherine has retired now, and I’ve noticed the courtrooms just use recording devices to capture proceedings now. I would guess court reporters are still used to take depositions and take down other proceedings, but I don’t know.

Just like with shorthand, folks have moved on to other means of capturing what is said. I still like to see things in black and white and know something is committed to paper and bound volumes for posterity, history and research, because a DVD can be snapped in two pretty easily. Of course DVD’s and CD’s will be obsolete at some point too (maybe already are, and I just haven’t kept up), just like the floppy discs folks used to save files on.

I’ll still use my shorthand to take notes because it serves my purpose, and because it’s like my secret code. The “short fat guy” at the end of the table never needs to know.