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Picosecond shear acoustic pulses can be generated in solids using ultrashort optical pulses. Here we use this technique to seek high frequency shear waves in water, ethylene glycol and glycerol while simultaneously measuring high frequency longitudinal wave velocity and attenuation. We use a silica thin film on (114) GaAs to generate shear and longitudinal acoustic pulses at frequencies up to ∼50 GHz by ultrashort pulsed optical excitation. The acoustic pulses are transmitted into adjacent liquids, and are detected through variations in the optical reflectivity. Although we could not detect shear waves in these liquids, we did detect gigahertz longitudinal elastic stiffening. © 2007 IOP Publishing Ltd.