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 ClavierLinotype 20041006-163300 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.

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).

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.

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

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 character called Gobfrey Shrdlu or his wife, Lousie.

Here are a few examples. They’re not particularly funny in themselves but a book containing page after page of them leaves you helpless with mirth:-

  • Something New Which No Motorist Should Be Without. We offer you the SELF-GRIP WENCH.
  • It was not disclosed where the honeymoon would be spent. For travelling Mrs Johnson wore the lovely 5-tier wedding cake.
  • Mr --- was elected and accepted the office of People's Churchwarden. We could not get a better man!
  • A very enjoyable affair was the Children's Hallowe'en Party. Added to the beauty of it all was the fact that few of the children could be recognized as they all wore masks.
  • For a moment he stood there looking into her eyes. Between them was a bowl of hyacinths.

Next: Dramatic changes

© Brian Smith 2015