Typography Word of the Day: Etaoin Shrdlu

Some say he’s the fellow responsible for all the typos

The apparent nonsense words etaion shrdlu have two meanings we’ll concern ourselves with here:

  1. The twelve most used Latin glyphs in English, arranged in approximate order.
  2. A faceless person appearing with no small frequency during the Golden Age of Linotype.

Defn. 1. serves us well in games of hangman. Defn. 2, being much more fun, begs a bit of explanation.

Linotype keyboards were different from our QWERTY friends. The glyphs were arranged, from left to right, in order of use frequency, and there were five rows of them. The first two colums on the left were, from top to bottom, e-t-a-o-i-n, and next column s-h-r-d-l-u. Now, to recall, Linotype machines operated by depositing matricies into a mold then filling that mold with hot metal once assembled. If an operator made an error, deletion was out of the question.

A quick run of the finger up and down the first two columns rendered our friend’s name, where it could be–usually–picked out by the proofing workflow. But, sometimes it didn’t…with historically funny consequences for newspaper readers across the nation.

So, remember, if you see this writer (or anyone) making a typo, it’s not our fault–it’s that Etaoin, at work again, eternal as the type, evergreen as the newest digital font.

See also: Wikipedia entry on ETAOIN SHRDLU, complete with links to Etaoin-inspired projects not even we could have guessed exist.

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