Etaoin shrdlu (//) is a nonsense phrase that sometimes appeared in print in the days of "hot type" publishing because of a custom of type-casting machine operators. It appeared often enough to become part of newspaper lore.
The letters on type-casting machine keyboards (such as Linotype and Intertype) were arranged by letter frequency, so e-t-a-o-i-n s-h-r-d-l-u were the lowercase keys in the first two vertical columns on the left side of the keyboard. When an operator made a mistake in composing, he would often finish the line by running his finger down the first two rows of the keyboard and then start over. Occasionally the faulty line of hot-metal type would be overlooked and be printed erroneously. This happened often enough for "etaoin shrdlu" to be listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
In the early days of computer studies of language, an examination of newspaper text and television news copy included a letter frequency count, followed by a journal article. Irving Fang concluded that the linotype machines got it nearly right, but that the actual frequency of letters in the English language is ETAONI RSHDLC.
Peter Norvig used in 2013 the Google Books Ngrams corpus for the frequencies, resulting in the order ETAOIN SRHLDCU. A Google Books Ngram for the phrase itself shows it appearing around 1919 and being most common during the 1930s, although it appears even today (despite the death of commercial hot metal typesetting) for reasons including computer science and continuing historical interest.
Appearance outside typography
The phrase has gained enough notability to appear outside typography, including:
- SHRDLU was used in 1972 by Terry Winograd as the name for an early artificial-intelligence system in Lisp.
- The ETAOIN SHRDLU Chess Program was written by Garth Courtois Jr. for the Nova 1200 mini-computer, competing in the 6th and 7th ACM North American Computer Chess Championship 1975 and 1976.
- Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) includes a dialogue entitled "SHRDLU, Toy of Man's Designing" between fictional programmer "Eta Oin" and the artificial-intelligence program SHRDLU. The title is also a play on Bach's piece Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (July 2013)|
- Etaoin Shrdlu, or a portion of the phrase, is a character in works of fiction, including: Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine.
- Etienne Cherdlu is a character in Thomas Pynchon's story "The Secret Integration" featured in Slow Learner, a collection of novellas.
- Etaoins is used in James Thurber's 1931 Owl in the Attic to indicate the incompetence of a machine operator.
- In H. Beam Piper's science fiction novel Four Day Planet, the protagonist is a "NewsTaper" reporting the local news; he sprinkles 1950s-era newspaper slang in his conversation. He uses Etaoin Shrdlu as imaginative "profanity" that could still be published in 1950s magazines, e.g.: "That's a double two-em-dashed lie, you etaoin shrdlu so-and-so!"
- In 1942 Etaoin Shrdlu 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.)
- 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".
- In 1958, the National Press Club (USA) published Shrdlu - An Affectionate Chronicle, a 50-year retrospective of the Club's history.
- Edwin Morgan's poem "A View of Things", published in The Second Life (1968), contains the line, "what I love about newspapers is their etaoin shrdl".
- Around 1970, Denys Parsons published his "Gobfrey Shrdlu" series of collections of humorous printers' errors and odd facts, which he attributed to typesetters being distracted by a supernatural being called "Gobfrey Shrdlu, and his Welsh wife Cmfwyp, and his sons Etaoin and Timoᾦthy". (Compare Titivillus.)
- the name of a science fiction fanzine edited by Sheldon Lee Glashow & Steven Weinberg
- "etaoin shrdlu". Merriam-Webster. Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Stoddard, Samuel (2004). "Letter Frequency". Fun With Words. RinkWorks. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
- Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu (Motion picture). New York City: Educational Media Collection/University of Washington. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
- Irving E. Fang, "It Isn't ETAOIN SHRDLU; It's ETAONI RSHDLC," Journalism Quarterly, December 1966, vol. 43, no. 4, pages 761-762
- Peter Norvig "English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited or ETAOIN SRHLDCU"
- Winograd, Terry. "How SHRDLU got its name". SHRDLU. Stanford University. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
- Courtois Jr., Garth (7 August 2008). "Am I old enough to remember keypunch cards? Umm, yeah...". Blog Archives. ababsurdo.com. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
- Quinion, Michael. "etaoin shrdlu". Weird Words. World Wide Words. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
- Pynchon, Thomas (1984). The Secret Integration. Slow Learner. Boston: Back Bay Books/Little Brown. pp. 139–193. ISBN 0-316-72442-4.
- Piper, H. Beam (2011). Four Day Planet. The Floating Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-77545-543-1.
- Shrdlu - An Affectionate Chronicle. Washington, DC: National Press Club. 1958.
- Morgan, Edwin. The Second Life. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0852244118.
- "Series: Gobfrey Shrdlu". LibraryThing. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
- "Old Legends", Gregory Benford
- Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu at the Internet Movie Database
- "What's the origin of the mysterious phrase etaoin shrdlu?" at The Straight Dope
- Excerpt demonstrating etaoin shrdlu from the film Linotype: The Film at the Internet Movie Database
- Over 100 examples of the phrase used in American newspapers from 1836–1922 at the Library of Congress
- English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited or ETAOIN SRHLDCU