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An amanuensis is a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another, and also refers to a person who signs a document on behalf of another under the latter's authority. The term is often used interchangeably with secretary or scribe.
The word originated in ancient Rome, for a slave at his master's personal service "within hand's reach", performing any command; later it was specifically applied to an intimately trusted servant (often a freedman) acting as a personal secretary (amanuensis is what he does, not what he is).
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.
It is also used in a specific sense in some academic contexts, for instance when an injured or disabled person is helped by an amanuensis at a written examination. A notable case in classical music was that of Eric Fenby, who assisted the blind composer Frederick Delius in writing down the notes that Delius dictated.
In the Netherlands it refers to a (technically schooled) physics, chemistry or biology laboratory assistant responsible for preparing and assisting with or conducting laboratory demonstrations and maintaining the instruments. When employed as such in a school environment s/he will have the title of "TOA" ("technisch-onderwijsassistent", i.e. Technical Teaching Assistant).
In Sweden, amanuens is used to denote roughly a teaching assistant at university who either continues with his own scientific work, or who works as an administrative assistant at the department where he or she studies. The title can also be used for a civil servant at archives or museums.
In Finland, amanuenssi is an administrative employee of a university or a research institution. In universities, amanuenses can be involved with student guidance counseling, organising course activities etc. In Finnish universities' schools of medicine, the title of "amanuenssi" is reserved for students working under guidance and supervision in hospitals, a mandatory part of medical studies.
The term is also used to describe one who assists an organist during a performance, by drawing and retiring stops, and by turning pages, although the more common term is "registrant."
Amanuensis is also used in New Thought and mystical religious movements — such as Church Universal and Triumphant — to describe the role of a person receiving dictation from one of the Ascended Masters. For example, Mark L. Prophet — religious leader and founder of the Summit Lighthouse (1958) — claims to have written down the words of AM El Morya (also embodied as Thomas More) as received through dictation. ("Dictation" is claimed to be a form of direct communication from a non-incarnate Master to a guru or leader with the capacity to receive such messages). In doing so, Prophet would have served as El Morya's amanuensis.
Certain employers use the term for (generally unskilled) manual labourers at the bottom of the hierarchy, for example as factotum. During the 19th and early 20th century, an amanuensis was the job title for male secretaries who were employed by the railroad or ship to be available for travelers who required services en route.
The title is also used for officer positions in some collegiate debate and literary societies, including the Philodemic Society of Georgetown University. The Amanuensis records the official proceedings of these societies.
A similar term, handlanger, exists in German and Dutch (nowadays in Germany its negative connotation of an unscrupulous, low person acting as criminal assistant prevails whereas the original use of this term for an unskilled and possibly also illiterate person assisting, in the literal sense of lending a hand at construction works has become rather rare). The term, handlanger, is also used in Afrikaans, but mostly without the criminal undertones; handlanger typically refers to an aide, helper or handyman.