Nonsense Words

One of the stories in Steampunk Mashup: A Collection of Victorian Adventures has a title that is rather obscure. And, a protagonist with an unpronounceable surname that is associated with the title.

I used the first word of the title since it sounds Gaelic, and since the hero is an Irishman. The actual title though has more to do with type setting for newspapers. It is a nonsense word pronounced: Etwan Sherdlu. Its origin comes from the days of “hot type” publishing, that ended around the 1970’s and 80’s as phototypesetting, offset lithography printing and computer typesetting came into vogue.

Newspaper copy was sent to the composing rooms, where it was set into type by Linotype machines. The operators under deadlines, set type with their machine which transform a line of type into slugs from a large pot of molten lead, antimony, and tin used to print the newspaper. Should a linotype operator make a mistake, he would then run his finger down the left-hand columns of the lower-case keyboard of the machine producing “a run down,” that the compositor was supposed to recognize and eject.

Should he miss the typographic set of slugs sent to him, the morning newspaper would read:

New York, July18,

“Here are two reasons why bailiffs, judges, prosecutors, and court stenographers die young—etaoin, shrdlu, cmfwypl.”

The first line of the Linotype operators keyboard was the most commonly occurring list of lower case letters in the language-e,t,a,o,i,n.  The next line on the keyboard, were the next most common letters—s,h,r,d,l,u, according to the 1884 inventor of the Linotype Machine, Ottmar Mergenthaler. The third keyboard set of lowercase letters-c,m,f,w,y,p,l were also commonly printed when the operator did a run down on all three columns of his machine. My hero got his surname from the third column, another nearly unpronounceable name.

In 2012, Peter Norvig of Google checked the frequency of use of letters and found that Mergenthaler had it right on ETAOIN but SHRDLU should be updated to: SRHLDCU.

If I had known this, I would have titled my story: Etaoin Srhldcu. And, Etaoin’s surname would have been: Umfpgw instead of Cmfwypl.