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Where have you gone, etaoin shrdlu?

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One commonly printed “phrase” has disappeared from the English language.  This “phrase” wasn’t a phrase at all, but it would often appear in print, starting in the late 19th century and vanishing by the 1980s.  The “phrase” would baffle readers who were hard pressed to pronounce it, much less to understand it.  The phrase was “etaoin shrdlu”.

“etaoin shrdlu” was the subject of many letters to the editor from readers begging an explanation.  An item in the local paper might look like this:

Item in the New York Times, October 30, 1903.

A reader might, understandably, want to know what’s going on.  That line, third from the bottom, looks like gibberish, but anyone who read newspapers frequently during this time would have seen the “etaoin shrdlu” part before.  Editors would dutifully explain what it’s all about.

You might have guessed that the twelve letters in “etaoin shrdlu” are the most commonly used letters in the English language, from the most frequent to the twelfth most frequent.  This was no accident.  It was progress.  Until the late 19th century, printing was done with typesetting.  Typesetters would arrange small metal dies onto sticks, cover them with ink, and make impressions on paper.  This process was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century and had been somewhat improved upon over the following four centuries.  After that, printing took a great leap forward.  In 1884, the linotype machine was invented.

The linotype machine was something like a huge typewriter, with which the operator could produce a whole “line o’ type” (thus the name) at a time.  This sped up the process, and the linotype machine soon became the industry standard for newspapers.

A typical linotype machine from the mid-20th century.

To make the process more efficient, the keyboard was arranged to represent the most commonly used letters in the English language, top to bottom, six keys per column.  Sometimes, when the linotype operator made a mistake, he would run his fingers over the keys to finish the line, with the intent of going back later to fix the mistake.  Since newspapers often operated under strict deadlines, there might not be enough time to fix the mistake (or the operator might just forget to).  As a result, the filler would remain in place.  The most common filler came from those first twelve keys: etaoin shrudlu.

The reference would show up in comic books occasionally, and contemporary audiences would likely get the joke.  It frequently was the unpronounceable name of a bit character in a comic book, like it was in the 1959 story by Harvey Kurtzman, Decadence Degenerated, reproduced below.

Scene introducing "Etaoin Shrdlu" from Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book, 1959.