Etaoin Shrdlu is not, as one might expect, a mythological creature from the menagerie of a Yeats Poem. Despite a certain Celtic charm, its origins are somewhat less cerebral and the phrase’s roots lie grounded in the world of printing.
Hot on the heels of Gutenberg’s primitive introduction of printing to Europe, came new-fangled methods. Ever more efficient systems sprung to life, but one of these soon evolved to dominate the others.
The Linotype Machine, a hot metal typesetting system which chose phrases over letters. It was so successful, the method lingered for almost a century. Countless magazines, manifestos and periodicals owe their existence to the Linotype Machine. Such was its ascent that only in the last 40 or 50 years did it fall from favour. These days it’s all done by computer, but for the longest time, the Linotype Machine was king of the presses. The machine takes its name from the lines of metal type it printed, hence a line-o’-type.
To our eyes the Linotype Machine’s keyboard is a steampunk vision which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow on the set of a Terry Gilliam movie. Even the positioning of the letters is esoteric and arranged by frequency of use rather than accessibility. It is here we find our e-t-a-o-i-n-s-h-r-d-l-u. These lowercase letters form the first pair of vertical columns to the left of the keyboard. Linotype operators were prone to error and Etaoin Shrdlu was code for a reset. It was common practice for the operators to run their fingers down these twin columns before starting again. The resulting mistake would often slip by the weary eyes of the editor and thus Etaoin Shrdlu crept into our collective memory. It’s not a difficult leap to imagine diligent newspaper readers chuckling over its discovery of a Sunday morning.
In addition to its place in newspaper legend, the phrase Etaoin Shrdlu also found its way into print for grander reasons. Having escaped the niche of printing folklore, fiction writers throughout the ’30s and ’40s were fond of sneaking references to it into their own work. Over many happy decades, the terms Etaoin and Shrdlu have graced numerous pages. The pen of US humourist James Thurber reinvented the term Etaoin as a synonym for the absurd and otherworldly in a short story from 1931. In 1942 Fredric Brown used the term for the title of his pulp sci-fi about a sentient Linotype Machine. A few years later, in The Naughty Princess by Anthony Armstrong, one of the pair were knighted and his tale even ends with this delightful quote: “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”.
Etaoin Shrdlu has risen to such prominence that the Oxford English Dictionary has now enshrined the phrase into our very language. It is our humble intent to continue this trend.
Why did we choose to champion “Etaoin & Shrdlu”?
Ignoring for a moment its aesthetic beauty, Etaoin Shrdlu holds a great symbolic power. It speaks of a simpler time where words ruled the earth. Etaoin Shrdlu is a phrase which conjures a world where books were treasure and bibliophiles pored over every page in every edition. Etaoin Shrdlu suggests a time when printers were artisans and their works of art lived on all the finest shelves. It is the aim of our publishing house, to honour this tradition, and save it from obscurity.
This is our mission, our passion and our commitment to our clients. We do hope you will join us in our endeavour.