That title should look funny to you if you were brought up, as I was, on the old typesetters’ standard order of frequency, ETAOIN SHRDLU (which I, like many an sf fan, learned from a short story by Fredric Brown). But the old order has been dethroned; you can read all about it at Peter Norvig’s English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited, which begins with a letter from Mark Mayzner, who studied the frequency of letter combinations in English words in the early 1960s, and proceeds to all manner of interesting information about word counts, word length, letter frequencies by position within word, you name it. Thanks go to John Cowan for passing it along.
Also: 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence. I especially love the conclusion: “Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”


  1. Actually, way way back I memorised it as ETAON RISH. I don’t remember the source.

  2. ETAOIN SHRDLU was made known widely by Pogo. Google tells me that “Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, The Adding Machine, had Etaoin Shrdlu as a character” here and that it featured in another s-f story by Zelazny and Bester, Psychoshop.
    An untitled blog says “It was possibly made famous and given an odd spin by its use within the Artificial Intelligence debate,being used in ‘Godel Escher Bach’ by Douglas Hofstatter in the seventies.”
    And: “With regard to AI, shrdlu was the name of Terry Winograd’s program used in his natural language research in the late 60’s, early 70’s …
    Now, why did Winograd chose the second letter grouping? From MAD magazine, of course …which found it almost as hilarious as potzrebie.”
    The Mad history of potzrebie, a Polish word, found originally on instructions on an aspring bottle, has its moments, connected (jokingly and wrongly) by Mad to “ferschlugginer”.
    Amazing what Wiki turns up.

  3. The ETAON RISH sequence may have come from Herbert Zim’s “Codes and Secret Writing,” abridged for grade-schoolers by Scholastic Book Services in 1962.
    That and “Alvin’s Secret Code” got me hooked on cryptography early.

  4. Let’s get the spelling right: potrzebie.

  5. One grunch and an eggplant over there.

  6. I remember ETAON RISH from my reading as a kid. Likely it was the Zim book.

  7. If you look at the first two columns of either the black or the white sections of the standard Linotype keyboard:
    you’ll see the good old etaoinshrdlu.

  8. Shrdlu fhtagn!

  9. MattF is correct – ETAOIN SHRDLU refers to the Linotype keyboard, even if it’s not quite the correct order of the most frequently used letters in English.
    There’s a story that when reporters would send down articles with a name or two missing (for example, the winner of an election), the compositors would type in “etaoin shrdlu” to fill in the space for calculating layout, then hopefully replace etaoin shrdlu with the correct name.
    This hope was apparently not always realized, and supposedly at least one newspaper was nicknamed the “Etaoin Shrdlu” as it would not surprise the particularly keen-eyed to find the name of that paper in the masthead replaced by our good friend, and most-mentioned person in the paper.

  10. marie-lucie says

    “Etaoin Shrdlu” sounds (or rather, looks) to me like an Irish-Gaelic-speaking relative of Cthulhu.

  11. marie-lucie says

    I meant “like the name of an Irish-Gaelic-speaking relative of Cthulhu.”

  12. David Marjanović says

    Iä! Iä!

  13. Cthulhu naflfhtagn! (And that’s a Bad Thing, in case you were wondering.)

  14. I always suspected HPL got those fh’s from Irish in the first place. It must be–indeed I remember it is–a purely horrendous-looking language when seen for the first time. Nevertheless, as we’ve been pursuing elsewhere, its orthography is really surprisingly rational when studied.

  15. Pursuing the above idea, I take this to be an example of HPL’s buttoned-up New England WASP detestation of immigrants in general and the Irish in particular. Does anyone share my impression that Frank Belknap Long, in “The Black Druid,” was gently satirizing his friend for these attitudes?

  16. Rodger C: if indeed HP Lovecraft used elements of Irish orthography to depict an evil and alien language, well, he isn’t alone: apparently the “Black Speech” in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth contains some Irish words which Tolkien found especially alien-looking (whereas Welsh and Finnish elements were the main building-blocks of the various Elvish languages).
    I wonder: has any Irish fantasy writer tried turning the tables, and written a story set in a world with Irish-looking words associated with good, and (Old?) English-looking words associated with evil?
    Another example I know of involving another language is Stephen Donaldson, in his CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNEBELIEVER; he uses Sanskrit (or Sanskrit-looking elements) to create names within “The Land” where the stories are set. Unsurprisingly, the author spent his childhood in India.
    There is also Frank Herbert and his use of various elements (notably Romani) to construct the language of the Fremen in DUNE.
    Finally, of course, the language of the Klingons in the STAR TREK universe was created by a linguist whose specialty was an indigenous language of the North American West Coast, and Klingon phonology certainly bears a more than passing similarity to the human languages of that part of the world. Not coincidentally, this is a phonology that is about as maximally un-English-like as possible.
    Does anybody know other examples?

  17. Etienne: The hive-mind has been there and done that:

  18. @Etienne: I believe the fact about Tolkien is that some years after writing The Lord of the Rings he encountered Scottish Gaelic nasg ‘ring’ and decided he must have cryptomnesized (is that a verb?) it. He did find Goidelic unpleasantly “squashy,” which has a Lovecraftian ring (ahem) to it.

  19. MattF: the book examines invented languages, whereas what I had in mind also involved authors who create words and names (and nothing more)whose phonology, especially, has a clearly non-English “flavour”, often due to the influence of real languages (Sanskrit or Gaelic or whatever…)
    Rodger C: if “cryptomnize” isn’t a verb, it should be!

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    I wrestled unsucessfully with Old Irish my last semester in college, closer to the period in my life I had been reading substantial Lovecraft and Tolkein, and I must say while I found it frustrating (esp. after having been lulled into complacency by easy-peasy Old Norse the prior semester) it didn’t evoke either the Old Ones or Mordor, orthographically or otherwise.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    Mostly unrelated, but a wacky recent quote from Mayor Bloomberg of NYC: “It is just meshugana, as we say in Gaelic.”

  22. It’s modern Irish that has the Luveh-Keraphf orthography. Old Irish looks fine at first glance, it’s just that you can’t pronounce it, still less can you understand it.

  23. Old Slug No. 1 had been “hitting the hop”—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu—
    And sad was the day when he blew the shop—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.
    Said the foreman, “I hate to put on the slob,
    But what kin I do when we’s got such a rush job?”
    So the boss he went back to his den with a sob—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.

    Slug 1 grabbed the mill and he ground out the slugs—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu—
    But sadly the floor men did waggle their mugs—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.
    “We know what’s a-comin’,” they sadly did say;
    “Every slug is a ‘pi-line’ and this is Fri-day;
    We’ll be stuck sure as hell an’ we can’t git away,”
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.

    So all day long them wheels turned around—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu,
    As he hammered the keys with a terrible pound—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.
    Oh, the boss he was sick, and the foreman he swore,
    And the galley boy sneaked out the back alley door,
    And the proofreader never was seen no more—
              Etaoin etaoin shrdlu.

    From Around the copydesk : graded exercises in news editing for use as a practice-manual (1946). “Pi” or “pie” or “pye” is a printing term for a jumbled-up mess of type, with a long history going back to the 1600s according to the OED. Any clue if this was a parody of a known song, or sung to a known tune?

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought “Titwillow, titwillow, titwillow”

  25. wow! yes, @PP!

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Do you mean to tell me that the “fh” is silent in “Cthulhu fhtagn”?

    Bummer. No wonder my sacrifices haven’t been accepted.
    And all those victims wasted. (They aren’t so easy to come by these days, either, what with Young People’s morals being what they are nowadays.)

    Still, tomorrow is another day …

  27. @empty: I’m glad you corrected the spelling of “potrzebie” — that’s how I remember it from reading MAD almost 60 years ago.
    Interesting note: That is the locative (and dative) singular of “potrzeba”, which means “necessity” (and many other things) in Polish. I wonder if it was a euphemism for “toilet” back then? So “in the necessary” > “in the john (bog, W/C)” — that would explain MAD’s interest in the word! Their humor was pretty juvenile, after all! Just a thought.

  28. John Cowan says

    Do you mean to tell me that the “fh” is silent in “Cthulhu fhtagn”?

    By no means; it’s [fh] (or [fʰ]), just as you’d expect. Indeed, h is never part of a digraph, as in Cthugha [kthugha]. This rule does not apply to Luveh-Keraphf, which is [luvɛkɛrɑfː], as it is Atlantean, not Ancientese (across the Pond it probably has [æ] rather than [ɑ]).

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed, RP-speaking Great Old Ones have [æ] where trans-Atlanteans have [ɑ].

  30. January First-of-May says

    Indeed, h is never part of a digraph

    AFAIK in “Cthulhu” th might not be a digraph (I don’t recall offhand if it’s [θ] or [tʰ], though IIRC it’s still not [th]) but lh very likely is (for something like [lˠ] or [ʟ]).

    …looking it up, the best sense I can make of the original description of how to pronounce the th part that also matches the spelling is [t͡ɬ], like in “Klingon” (and “Nahuatl”). I have no idea what’s going on with lh except that there indeed seems to be a [ʟ] or [ʟ̠] somewhere in there (or perhaps some even-further-back lateral approximant, which is apparently pronounceable but not attested in known human languages and thus does not have an IPA letter).

  31. it didn’t evoke either the Old Ones or Mordor, orthographically or otherwise.

    The real world language closest to the Black Speech is probably Kazakh. No slur intended towards Kazakhs, more Tolkien (hopefully unconsciously) evoking the deep seated European fear of grim invaders from the East. The tongue of Mordor seems very Turkic.

  32. January First-of-May says

    The tongue of Mordor seems very Turkic.

    AFAIK some researchers note that it sounds even more like Hurro-Urartian (the name of that grim Eastern Northern invader Burna-Buriash could easily be right at home in Mordor) but it’s unclear how much data on Hurro-Urartian would have been available in Tolkien’s time. Not very much, IIRC.

    EDIT: …though I can see the Turkicity of the piled-up agglutinative suffixes in words like durb-at-ul-ûk. (IIRC the actual known morphemic division is durb-atul-ûk and we don’t actually know if -atul- is one morpheme or several.)

Speak Your Mind