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The sequence in The New York Times (October 30, 1903).

ETAOIN SHRDLU is a nonsense phrase that sometimes appeared in print in the days of "hot type" publishing due to a custom of Linotype machine operators. It is the approximate order of frequency of the twelve most commonly used letters in the English language.


Linotype history

A linotype keyboard. It has the following alphabet arrangement twice, once for lower-case and once for upper-case letters, with extra keys for numbers and symbols: etaoin / shrdlu / cmfwyp / vbgkqj / xz

The letters on Linotype keyboards were arranged by letter frequency, so ETAOIN SHRDLU were the first two vertical columns on the left side of the keyboard. Linotype operators who had made a typing error could not easily go back to delete it, and had to finish the line before they could eject the slug and re-key a new one. Since the line with the error would be discarded and hence its contents didn't matter, the quickest way to finish the line was to run a finger down the keys, creating this nonsense phrase.

If the slug with the error made it as far as the compositors, the distinctive set of letters served to quickly identify it for removal. Occasionally, however, the phrase would be overlooked and be printed erroneously. This happened often enough that the ETAOIN SHRDLU is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.

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.[1]

Appearance outside typography


  • SHRDLU was used in 1972 by Terry Winograd as the name for an early artificial-intelligence system in Lisp.
  • The ETA esoteric programming language uses the letters E, T, A, O, I, N, S and H as commands, and ignores the rest.
  • 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. [2]


Etaoin Shrdlu, or a portion of the phrase, is the name of a character in many works of fiction, including:

It also is used in fiction in other ways, including:

  • Etaoins is used in James Thurber's 1931 Owl in the Attic to indicate the incompetence of a Linotyper.
  • 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.)
  • 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".
  • Emile Mercier, Australian cartoonist of the 1950s, would sometimes incorporate the word Shrdlu into his text.
  • Ogden Nash's poem Peekabo, I Almost See You includes this description of a visit to an optometrist:
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP, and you say Well, why SHRDLU QWERTYOP? and he says one set of glasses won't do. / You need two.


  • The writer Denys Parsons wrote several books compiling misprints from publications (It Must be True, Can It Be True?, etc.) in which a character called Gobfrey Shrdlu (with a Welsh wife called Cmfwyp and a son called Etaoin) was supposedly responsible for all such occurrences.
  • Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) includes a dialogue between fictional programmer "Eta Oin" and the artificial-intelligence program SHRDLU.


  • In The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve, four titles — "JATP Blues", "Blues For Norman", "Jam Blues" and "The Opener" — are credited to Shrdlu, and "The Closer" is credited to Etaoin. Etaoin is also credited as the composer for "Blues" on the original 1944 10" LP Jazz at the Philharmonic (Mercury/Clef MG35005).
  • The phrase was the title of a piece by the band Cul de Sac on their 2000 album Crashes To Light, Minutes To Its Fall. The band also released a piece by the name of Etaoin Without Shrdlu on a 2002 live recording titled Immortality Lessons.


  • Herb Caen claimed that the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper was nicknamed the Etaoin Shrdlu because of its questionable production standards.
  • In the videogame The Castle of Dr. Brain, there's a point where the player is given a metallic plaque, with the inscription "E Ta Oins Hrdlu". It serves as a guide to resolve some language-oriented riddles.
  • A blog by editors of the McClatchy newspaper chain is called Etaoin Shrdlu. [4]

Other languages

  • The French version, "elaoin sdrétu", was used as the name of a robot in the Petit Noël comics of André Franquin.

See also


External links

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