Dear Cecil: You are my last hope. I need to know the origin of the phrase “etaoin shrdlu.” I first encountered it in Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip, where it was the moniker of an irascible bookworm, and it has turned up periodically since. I have searched, in my own pitiful way, for any printed reference to this enigmatic jumble of letters, but to no avail. The nearest thing I have to a lead is the guess of an old pressman. He suggests that “etaoin shrdlu” is what they used to test Linotype typesetting machines with. Apparently the letters e, t, a, o, etc., were placed in two rows at one end of the keyboard. A typesetter who wanted to test the machine would run his fingers down these rows and rattle out the nonsense phrase. Can you confirm this? John S., Chicago
You got it, Jojo. Back when newspapers used to be set in “hot” (i.e., cast metal) type, “etaoin shrdlu” would occasionally wind up in print because a careless Linotype operator neglected to throw his test lines away. These unpredictable appearances gave the phrase a certain mythic quality, shall we say, that has beguiled the curious ever since. The letters are arranged thus because that’s the order of their frequency of use in English, at least according to one calculation. The full sequence is ETAOIN SHRDLU CMFGYP WBVKXJ QZ.
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