The talented Mr. Shrdlu

Today he is all but forgotten, but there was a time when Etaoin Shrdlu showed up daily in newspapers across the US. His name most often appeared in the dense columns of classified ads or the business listings, but it also popped up in stories about political intrigue, society soirees and gruesome crimes. In 1922, The Lawrence Daily Journal identified Shrdlu as a railroad union kingpin. Three years later, TheChicago Daily Tribune listed him as a boy soprano at a major music festival. In 1929 The Newark Advocate referred to Shrdlu as the US Ambassador to Germany.

The breadth of Shrdlu’s athleticism, alone, would have impressed any attentive reader. He was a jock of all trades. The Pampa News had him playing football for Yale. The Bakersfield Californian listed him among promising heavyweight boxers. The San Antonio Express lauded his local dominance in ten-pin bowling. According to the Washington Post, Mr. Shrdlu umpired the Midget Sandlot title game of 1923.

Despite his sundry gifts, Shrdlu had his demons. The Rolfe Arrow was “reliably informed” that Etaoin Shrdlu held the office of Klaliff in the local KKK. The New York Times associated him with series of brutal Klan beatings in Tulsa. The Washington Post named him in an article about a schoolgirl’s kidnapping in 1926. Three years later, the New York World dropped his name in a piece about “secret debauchery” in Washington, DC. For the better part of a century readers were presented with—and baffled by—Etaoin Shrdlu’s oft-reported exploits.

But the name wasn’t actually a name at all. It was purposeful gibberish that came about because of the invention of the linotype machine, a method of “hot metal” typesetting that revolutionized the newspaper industry in the late 19th Century.

This new technology allowed typesetters to assemble complete lines of type[1] at once, rather than composing them, letter-by-letter, out of precast fonts. By punching the keys of the linotype machine, an operator could cast a horizontal slug of type in a lead-based alloy. The slug could be used and then melted down and reset again and again. With this streamlined process, daily newspapers could expand beyond eight pages for the first time.

The typical linotype keyboard had 90 keys—which allowed upper- and lower-case letters, numerals, punctuation marks and an assortment of symbols. When an operator made a mistake in composing a line, he or she would complete the slug and mark it for discarding, usually by running one finger down the first two columns of keys. This would create the nonsense words etaoin shrdlu—a set of letters that would be easy for a proofreader to spot and discard before the page went to print.

But with the time pressures of printing a daily, the nonsense letters often slipped through to the print edition—and the baffling name Etaoin Shrdlu would be muttered over breakfast grapefruit halves from Coronado to Kennebunk.

The name became an inside joke in the newspaper trade, which only bewildered readers more. Shrdlu became a character in short stories, novels and plays. Etaoin Shrdlu was a recurring bookish character in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip. Frank Colby’s grammar column “Take My Word for It” often cited his erudite assistant Dr. Etaoin Shrdlu as the final authority in all matters linguistic. A Chicago Daily Tribune humorist endorsed “the Hon. Etaoin Shrdlu” as a candidate for mayor in 1931, based, in part, on Shrdlu’s call for “bigger and better unemployment.”

But Shrdlu was a running joke that technology soon outran. The linotype gave way to offset printing. That, in turn, was supplanted by digital typesetting. In this age of new media and dying dailies, Shrdlu’s name is as archaic as newsprint slapping concrete in the steely morning hours.

In August 1974, Etaoin Shrdlu made his final appearance in the pages of TheLos Angeles Times. His name popped up in a classified ad about a “picture perfect story book” bungalow for sale in Woodland Hills. That’s where I like to imagine him living still: It is late afternoon and an ancient Mr. Shrdlu hobbles—stoop-shouldered and silver haired—across his “super new plush carpet,” out to his back deck “shaded by huge pine trees.” He looks wistfully down at the traffic snaking along Ventura Boulevard between the billboards and mini malls. He stands a moment leaning on the rail and remembering those long forgotten days when his name was as ubiquitous as Ovaltine. Then he sighs and goes back inside to tweet about it.

[1] “Line o' type,” get it?

PAUL BUCHANAN still reads an actual newspaper, though he skips the business section