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.