Etaoin shrdlu

Etaoin shrdlu (/ˈɛtiɔɪn ˈʃɜːrdl/,[1] /ˈtɑːn ʃrədˈl/)[2] 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, and "etaoin shrdlu" is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.

Etaoin shrdlu in a 1903 publication of The New York Times (third line from the bottom).
A humorous and intentional example of etaoin shrdlu in a 1916 publication of The Day Book.

It is the approximate order of frequency of the 12 most commonly used letters in the English language.[3]


The letters on type-casting machine keyboards (such as Linotype and Intertype) were arranged by descending letter frequency to speed up the mechanical operation of the machine, so lower-case e-t-a-o-i-n and s-h-r-d-l-u were the first two columns on the left side of the keyboard.

Each key would cause a brass "mat" (an individual letter mold) from the corresponding slot in a font magazine to drop and be added to a line mold. After a line had been cast, the constituent mats of its mold were returned to the font magazine. The mats moved along a rail, and dropped into matching keyed slots. Because "e" was the most frequently used letter, it had the first slot, giving it the shortest round trip through the machine.

If a mistake was made, it was normally faster to finish the faulty line mold and discard the resulting cast line of type, than to dismantle a partially assembled line mold and manually return its constituent mats to the magazine. Since this was simpler if the line were padded out to full width, operators would finish a faulty line by running a finger down the first columns of the keyboard, making a sequence which was both convenient for operators and a pattern easily spotted by proofreaders.

However occasionally such a line would be overlooked, and make its way into print.

A documentary about the last issue of The New York Times to be composed using the hot-metal printing process (2 July 1978) was titled Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu.[4]

Appearances 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.[5]
  • 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.[6]
  • "Etienne Shrdlu" was used as the name of a character in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, touch-typing training software from the late 1980s.[7]


  • Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine includes Shrdlu as a character.[8]
  • 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.)[8]
  • 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".[8]
  • It is the name of a science fiction fanzine edited by Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg.[9]
  • Mr. Etaoin is a character – the Abalone newspaper typesetter – in The Circus of Dr. Lao.[10]
  • Thomas Pynchon named a character "Etienne Cherdlu" in his early short story The Secret Integration (1962) (see Slow Learner (1984)).
  • Three pieces in The New Yorker magazine were published in 1925, under the pen name Etain Shrdlu.[11]
  • At least one piece in The New Yorker magazine has Etaoin Shrdlu in the title.[12]
  • Max Shulman used the term as a name of several once-referenced characters in the 1944 book Barefoot Boy with Cheek.[13]
  • Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid includes a chapter named "SHRDLU, Toy of Man's Designing," which features a character named "Eta Oin" using a computer program "SHRDLU" — a reference to Terry Winograd's program and Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
  • In The Black Hole Travel Agency novels by Jack McKinney, Etaoin Shrdlu is the pseudonym for a number of authors who have written for the long-running Worlds Abound space opera novel series.
  • A series of books compiled by Denys Parsons, beginning with It Must be True: "It was all in the papers" (1952), and proceeding through All Too True (1954), Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar (1965), and several others, comprised collections of unintentionally humorous misprints and double meanings, mainly taken from newspapers. Parsons ascribed the creation of such errors to a mischievous character named Gobfrey Shrdlu, and referred to collectors of them as Shrdlologists.


  • In 1958, the National Press Club (USA) published Shrdlu - An Affectionate Chronicle, a 50-year retrospective of the Club's history.[14]
  • Etaoin Shrdlu is the name of a character in at least two Robert Crumb comic stories.[15]
  • Etaoin and Shrdlu both appear frequently in the drawings of Emile Mercier as place names, racehorses' names, and people's names.
  • Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu, filmed on July 1, 1978, is a documentary by David Loeb Weiss that chronicles the end of "hot type" and the introduction of computers into The New York Times's printing process.[2]
  • In the Pogo comic strip by Walt Kelly, 3/11/50, "Mr. Shrdlu -- Etaoin Shrdlu," is the name of a bookworm who criticizes Webster's Dictionary for, among other things, bad spelling.


  • Shrdlu (Norman Shrdlu) is listed as the composer of "Jam Blues", cut 1 on the 1951 Norman Granz-produced jazz album released in 1990 as Charlie Parker Jam Session. This appears to be a joke on Parker's part as Norman Shrdlu is credited in several Parker (and other) tunes.
  • "Etaoin Shrdlu" is the title of the first song on Cul de Sac's 1999 album Crashes to Light, Minutes to Its Fall.
  • "Etaoin"[16] and "Shrdlu", written and performed by Dallas Roberts, are original musical pieces created for the soundtrack of the US television series House of Cards, Season 2, Episode 10.[17]

See also


  1. "etaoin shrdlu". Merriam-Webster. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  2. Weiss, David Loeb (July 1, 1978). "Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu". New York Times. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  3. Stoddard, Samuel. "Letter Frequencies". Fun With Words. RinkWorks. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  4. Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu (Motion picture). New York City: Educational Media Collection/University of Washington. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  5. Winograd, Terry. "How SHRDLU got its name". Stanford University. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  6. Courtois, Jr., Garth (August 7, 2008). "Am I old enough to remember keypunch cards? Umm, yeah..." Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  7. Weasel, Yah (February 12, 2014). "Let's Play Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing". YouTube. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  8. Quinion, Michael. "etaoin shrdlu". World Wide Words. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  9. Scholz, Carter (2013-07-06). "Radiance: A Novel". Retrieved December 21, 2018. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. Finney, Charles G. (1935). The Circus of Dr. Lao. Viking Press. ISBN 4-87187-664-0.
  11. "Etain Shrdlu". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  12. Cooke, Charles; Maloney, Russell (October 31, 1936). "It Can't Etaoin Shrdlu". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  13. Shulman, Max (1944). Barefoot Boy with Cheek. Bantam Books.
  14. Shrdlu - An Affectionate Chronicle. Washington, DC: National Press Club. 1958. Archived from the original on October 25, 2015. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  15. Reynolds, Eric; Thompson, Ilse, eds. (2000). The Complete Crumb Comics. 14. ISBN 1-56097-364-1. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  16. "Etaoin performed by Dallas Roberts". Popisms. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  17. "Songs and music featured in House of Cards S2 E10 Chapter 23". Tunefind. February 14, 2014. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
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