Tag Archives: stenography


I would not say I had a narrow childhood, but, like everyone’s, it was bound to its particular time and place, and as I get older the memories thin out some too, to a sort of Reader’s Digest version or less. So the details, especially those of younger years, feature some things rather more prominently than others. I do not remember the record player that I apparently figured out the basic principles of when I was a toddler, nor the wastebasket I landed headfirst in around the same time, but I do remember the pushbutton light switches in the manse in the centre of Morley, and my dad’s mimeograph machine (including the smell), and snatches of cartoons I watched, and the word Watergate on the TV, and the metallic taste in the back of my mouth I got after sticking a piece of metal into an electric socket. Also the feeling I got from same.

I remember crawling into a cooler that was sitting open in the driveway and letting the lid close over me, and discovering that it wasn’t going to open again, and thumping until someone opened it. I remember dreaming of large spiders one afternoon napping on my parents’ bed, and running in circles through the rooms in the teacherage in Exshaw, and the taste of soap in my mouth after trying new words out on my parents. I remember the smell of the bathroom, and the sight of Reader’s Digests piled on a shelf near the toilet.

Before a certain age the memories are fewer and fewer. A balloon let go of and floating up in the air – was that in Ixmiquilpan or Grand Forks? I may have been three years old or so. And there is one memory that might be my earliest, or it might have been a later dream. I prefer to think it’s a real memory.

It goes like this: I am in a hallway, sitting on something. It’s moving, being pushed by people. They are wearing masks over their noses and mouths. One of them, a woman, leans over and asks me if I would like to wear a mask too. Then she puts the mask on me, and we go through a door.

That’s all I remember of that.

The thing is, there is only one real thing that happened to me that that could be a memory of. And at that time, I was less than a month old.

I developed, about a couple of weeks after being born, a nasty habit of projectile vomiting. Not good. Whatever I took in was just going right back out. My parents, naturally, were concerned. My mother recalls, “At the time, Dr. Spock’s paperback book was very popular with young parents. The word was that his liberal ideas on parenting weren’t the best, but that his medical advice was good. So we looked up projectile vomiting and found ‘pyloric stenosis.’” They took me to the nearest hospital, 70 miles away in Rocky Mountain House, and I was operated on. Yes, pyloric stenosis. I have the scar on my belly to this day.

So I owe my life to Dr. Spock. That’s Benjamin Spock. Not Mister Spock from Star Trek. Though that would be cool.

What is pyloric stenosis? It’s a stenosis of the pylorus. Which means it’s a narrowing (stenosis) of the passage between the stomach and the small intestine. How does that narrowing occur? When I was a kid, I thought it was a tumour. I subsequently got the idea that the walls of the pylorus were too thick and needed to be roto-rootered. But no, it’s a hypertrophy – overgrowth – of the muscle surrounding the pylorus. When the stomach tries to empty, the muscle spasms and forces everything back the other way.

Sort of like how some people react to perfectly normal linguistic features and processes. New words, or even words that aren’t new but they think are new. Or practically any real linguistic nourishment at all that would help them grow as people. They have a mental spasm and reject it. The readers fail to digest. But whereas a narrow pylorus is recognized as life threatening, many people try to present a narrow mind as a virtue. And somehow when these people projectile vomit linguistic changes, many others think it should be heeded. When what is really needed is a mental pyloromyotomy.

Oh, yeah, that’s the word for the operation whereby the pyloric muscle is cut so as to relieve the stenosis: pyloromyotomy. Just look at that beauty. Four o’s like cross-sections of the pylorus. Three y’s like the bottom of the stomach and the top of the intestine. Two m’s to make my my. Rhythmically two amphibrachs with an extra at the end.

But back to stenosis. Pyloric stenosis is not the only kind of stenosis. The body is full of tubes and valves and so on that can be narrowed. A common heart problem is mitral valve stenosis – narrowing of the mitral valve (which lets blood into the left ventricle of the heart) due to thickening of the tissue. Your airways, the channel your spinal cord passes through, everything that has any kind of fluid passing through it – all possibly subject to stenosis. In short, if it can be narrowed, it can have stenosis, though of course some kinds are more common.

And what effect can that have? Think of the passage of air through your mouth. Open your mouth and exhale. Now narrow that a little with the tip of your tongue. Narrow it some more. At a certain point you’ll be saying “ssss.” The sound you hear is caused by turbulence and speed, but you’ll notice that even with the increased pressure and speed of the air, much less passes through. And at a certain point that “sss” becomes a “t” – just like at the start of “stenosis.” Flow stops. Now, if there’s an alternate passageway, it’s like “n”; the air or whatever goes around and out another way. But generally that’s not so common in bodily channels. It’s one possible solution to a stenosis – but the better way is what follows the “n”: an “o” – a nice, open passage.

Where does this word come from? Greek, ultimately: στενός stenos ‘narrow’. People of older generations may recall hearing of stenographers (big offices would have a “steno pool,” i.e., a whole bunch of stenographers ready for use). What did they do? Take shorthand notes – dictation of letters, meeting notes, and so on. Since the 1600s, stenography has been a word for shorthand writing – because such writing is narrower, i.e., less space consuming. Coincidentally, Pitman shorthand – one of the two main types used in the 20th century – used the thickness of the stroke as a distinguishing feature between letter forms, adding another dimension of stenosis to the stenography.

Shorthand is little used these days. But I think people may still understand if I speak of memories as a shorthand of life – narrowed down, data compressed, but somehow not always decompressed very well thereafter. And old notes get discarded. I have no memory of what happened right after the operation for pyloric stenosis. But I know the short version: we want back to the Big Horn Stoney Indian Reserve, where we were living. From stenosis to Stoneys. From narrow digestive tract to big mountains and wide sky. And growing, and gradually building more memories. But nothing is still retained from that time so early in my life. Except that one scar.


Does this word refer to a sister who does stenography? Or does it sound somehow dinosaurish? Well, there is a steneosaurus (a word “badly formed (after Teleosaurus),” Oxford says), but one is probably more likely to think of stegosaurus. But stegosaurus uses stego from Greek stegé “covering” (like stegos “roof”), whereas the steno root comes from stenos “narrow.”

Narrow? Well, the dinosaur has a narrow beak. And, while life in a steno pool (a job that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore) was probably rather narrow, stenography – which means “shorthand,” as in those quick forms of minimalist cursive writing designed for taking notes as people talk – was thus named (by 1602, when it appeared in a book title) just because it took up less space on a page. (It is not to be confused with steganography, which means writing hidden messages and secret codes, and is from the same root as stegosaurus).

OK, but, really, this is all getting a bit thick. What the heck does stenosis mean? Well, one could say it does mean “getting a bit thick,” if by “thick” you mean that the walls of some passage in the body – the mitral valve, the larynx, the spine, or the pyloric sphincter, for instance – are thickened and the result is that the passage narrows. (Other factors can cause stenosis; the mitral valve may simply not open wide enough, for example.)

And if you have noticed – as you undoubtedly have – that stenosis sounds rather like kenosis, which is used to refer to Christ’s at least partial renunciation of the divine nature in incarnation, then actually there is a link: kenosis means “emptying” (and so connects us to Buddhist concepts too, but let us mu-ve on), and emptying is one thing that doesn’t happen well when there is stenosis. Or, anyway, it happens in the wrong direction. If you want details, you can look up pyloric stenosis yourself; it’s unappetizing and I’ll spare those who don’t want to know. I had more than enough of it in my infancy anyway. (Happily, it’s surgically reparable; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing tasting notes now, I dare say.) And if you are now thinking of sthenia, again it’s the opposite – asthenia, “weakness” – that stenosis tends to cause.

But how do you like saying this word? It’s all on the tip of your tongue; the only thing that involves the back of your mouth, really, is the raised back of the tongue in the /o/, and for that you balance by rounding your lips. So it keeps the tongue in a pretty narrow range, even more so because there are only mid and high vowels (nothing like in stall or stand). But your nose sits in the action, closed for the stop [t] and open for the nasal [n].

And to look at it? Quite innocuous. The nastiest anagram is stones (which is a different health problem anyway), or maybe ESSO snit or stein SOS, the one a gas hissy fit and the other a beer emergency. Eight letters, three-two-three in syllables, bookended with s‘s and with the little rises of t and i just inside. Not too narrow or crowded. Maybe a little clinical-looking because of the osis. But, really, not the kind of word that would make you sick. You’d think.