ETAOIN SHRDLU is the approximate order of frequency of the twelve most commonly used letters in the English language, best known as a nonsense phrase that sometimes appeared in print in the days of "hot type" publishing due to a custom of Linotype machine operators.
As the letters on Linotype keyboards were arranged by letter frequency, ETAOIN SHRDLU were the first two vertical columns on the left side of the keyboard. Linotype operators who had made a typing error could not easily go back to delete it, and had to finish the line before they could eject the slug and re-key a new one. Since the line with the error would be discarded and hence its contents didn't matter (and since the line needed to be filled to successfully pass through the casting unit), the quickest way to enter enough letters to finish it was to run a finger down the keys, creating this nonsense phrase.
Operators could correct an assembled line of matrices in the assembler by rearranging them by hand, or by picking out individual matrices ("mats") to "delete" a character, temporarily placing the rejected mats in a tray attached to the machine for this purpose. In the example on this page, the operator wanted to return an "m," a spaceband and an "e" to the machine, so after casting the final line of the story he placed the rejects in the empty assembler, filled the line by running a finger down the keys (with a spaceband between each line), added a few em spaces, and sent the line of mats through. Such lines would normally have been caught by the proofreaders or compositor.
If the slug with the error made it as far as the compositors, the distinctive set of letters served to quickly identify it for removal. Occasionally, however, the phrase would be overlooked and get printed erroneously. This happened often enough that the ETAOIN SHRDLU is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
It also became part of the lore of newspapers. A documentary about the last issue of The New York Times to be composed in the hot-metal printing process (2 July 1978) was entitled Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.
The Linotype keyboard had the following alphabet arrangement given twice, one for lower-case and once for upper-case letters, with extra keys for numbers and symbols located between the two cases:
- etaoin / shrdlu / cmfwyp / vbgkqj / xz
Appearance outside typography
- Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine had Etaoin Shrdlu as a character.
- Etaoins is used in James Thurber's 1931 Owl in the Attic to indicate the incompetence of a Linotyper.
- Mr. Etaoin is a character in Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935). He is the proofreader of the local newspaper, characterized as a "corrector of errors."
- In 1942 it was the title of a short story by Fredric Brown about a sentient Linotype machine. (A sequel, Son of Etaoin Shrdlu: More Adventures in Typer and Space, was written by others in 1981.)
- Etaoin Shrdlu is a character in Max Shulman's novel of college life, Barefoot Boy with Cheek (1943).
- Anthony Armstrong's 1945 whimsical short story "Etaoin and Shrdlu" ends "And Sir Etaoin and Shrdlu married and lived so happily ever after that whenever you come across Etaoin's name even today it's generally followed by Shrdlu's".
- It was the name of an irascible bookworm in Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo.
- Emile Mercier, Australian cartoonist of the 1950s, would sometimes incorporate the word Shrdlu into his text.
- Ogden Nash's poem Peekabo, I Almost See You includes this description of a visit to an optometrist:
- And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP, and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he says one set of glasses won't do.
- You need two.
The writer Denys Parsons wrote several books compiling misprints from publications (It Must be True
, Can It Be True?
, etc.) in which a character called Gobfrey Shrdlu (with a Welsh
wife called Cmfwyp and a son called Etaoin) was supposedly responsible for all such occurrences.
- The phrase was used as the title for a piece by the band Cul de Sac on their 4th album Crashes To Light, Minutes To Its Fall, in 2000. The band also released a piece by the name of Etaoin Without Shrdlu on a live recording titled Immortality Lessons in 2002.
- There is a Macedonian demo band called Etaoin Shrdlu.
- In The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve, four titles—"JATP Blues", "Blues For Norman", "Jam Blues" and "The Opener"—are credited to Shrdlu, and "The Closer" is credited to Etaoin. Etaoin is also credited as the composer for "Blues" on the original 1944 10" LP Jazz at the Philharmonic (Mercury/Clef MG35005).
- Herb Caen claimed that the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper was nicknamed the Etaoin Shrdlu because of its questionable production standards.
- A blog by editors of the McClatchy newspaper chain is called Etaoin Shrdlu.
- The French version of this twelve letter combination, "elaoin sdrétu", was used as the name of a robot in the Petit Noël comics of André Franquin.
In Letter frequency the table shown there has one version of the French frequency as 'esait nrulo'.
The German version comes out as 'enis ratulo'; the Spanish version as 'eaosr niltu'; the Italian as 'aeion lrtsu', the Swedish as 'eantr sildo' and the Esperanto as 'aieon lsrtu'. These all being European languages with the similar basic 25+ character alphabet.