2/11/2007

Hot, but not my type

When doing a Google search, I ran across the name of an old acquaintance, ETAOIN SHRDLU.

This nonsense phrase, pronounced “et tuh wayne shurd loo,” represents, in order, the letters occurring most frequesntly in the English language.

In days not too long past, the phrase – the bane of writers and delight of readers - often appeared in the middle of newspaper articles. Here’s why:

During the era of newspaper linotype machines, lines of “hot type” composed of tiny metal letters were generated by the linotype machine and dumped into a box at its side. These lines of type were then arranged in a tray to form a newspaper page, the job of the “compositor.”

The letters ETAOIN SHRDLU were arranged vertically at the left of the linotype keyboard. When the linotype operator made a typo, the only way to correct it was to dump a line of ETAOIN SHRDLU into the box, then clear the line with the typo or error.

Catching the bogus line was the proofreader’s job, and often the compositor nabbed the intruder, but sometimes the line would show up in a newspaper article.

I first met ETAOIN SHRDLU while writing for the Lawrence County (Miss.) Press in the late 60s.

This pesky intruder happened often enough and became so familiar to readers that ETAOIN SHRDLU is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary!

An entertaining history of the phrase can be found on Wikipedia, tracing ETAOIN SHRDLU’s appearance as characters in numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, plays, poems, music and even on the comics page as the bookworm in Walt Kelly’s great satirical comic strip, “Pogo.”

According to Wikipedia:

“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 titled ‘Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.’”

Read the Wikipedia article: LINK

1 comment:

Sir Cumspect said...

Frodo writes: From my vast store of useless and virtually inane information, it deserves note that Etaoin Shrdlu appeared frequently in MAD magazine. The same publication which first introduced George W. Bush to the literary world, in a caption beneath his picture which said "What, Me Worry?"