Etaoin Shrdlu and the world of misprints
There’s a wonderful aside from the invention of the linotype machine - the misprint.

What happens when you make a typing error when using a Linotype machine? The answer is that it’s easier to fill the rest of the line with rubbish and start the line again than to try and correct the error. And the best way to fill a line was run your finger down a couple of rows of keys.

If you look at this photograph of a Linotype keyboard you’ll see that the first two vertical rows of keys in both capitals and lowercase spell out the nonsense words "etaoin" and “shrdlu”.

Photograph of a Linotype keyboard

The Linotype machine keyboard

All you had to do was remember to remove the faulty slug from the finished job - and as you can imagine, this was often forgotten so the misprint was dutifully printed, complete with etaoin shrdlu’s to the end of the line.
(For an example, see the first line in the item at the top of the sidebar).

People in the early part of the 20th century became very familiar with seeing rows of etaoin shrdlu’s in their printed matter. Here’s an example - an advertisement for Doan’s Pills (about half way down). The operator mistyped “of waste” and aborted the line . . but then forget to physically remove it.

A newspaper advertisement in which the nonsense words "etaoin" and "shrdlu" have been printed because the typesetter forgot to remove the faulty line of type.

An advertisement for Doan’s Pills with misprint and aborted line

In fact the words Etaoin and Shrdlu became so familiar to early 20th century readers that they were used in several works of fiction.

A short story by Anthony Armstrong was entitled “Etaoin and Shrdlu”, and 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”.

Today’s readers would wonder what he was talking about but it was clearly very familiar in 1945 when the story was written.

In 1965 a book of misprints was published called “Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar”, by Denys Parsons.

It was simply a collection of misprints, grammatical errors and plain bad English but had the background theme that they had all been the work of an inept fictional character called Gobfrey Shrdlu and his wife, Lousie.

Read more about “Etaoin Shrdlu” misprints in Wikipedia. (opens in new window)

Next: Unexpected Consequences

© Brian Smith 2015