etaonrish, Etaoin Shrdlu

Etaonrish, dlf. Cm, ugyp! W b vkx, jqz…

That is a listing of the letters of the alphabet, in descending order of their frequency of use in English. I learned it in grade 5 from a book on cryptography. I memorized it by pronouncing it with a sound sort of like “Eat your own rice, Dolf. Come, you gyp! Will be vexed, Jacuzzi…”

It was knowledge. It was a thing I had learned, a thing I knew, a master key to special understanding. If I was faced with a long and complex cipher to decrypt, I could start by counting the frequency of the letters and starting to work out which was which from that…

In grade 6, one of our exercises in class was actually to decipher a sentence or two that had been encrypted with a simple replacement cipher. You know, something like this: Ksvl smf Koaa ermy iq yjr joaa yp gryvj s qsoa pg esyrt. So right away, I knew what to do: Count the letters! Figure it out from the frequency! Ah, ha!

What was truly vexing was that other students worked it out rather quickly while I was still stuck in the mud. How did they do that? Well, to start with, there are only so many one-letter words in the language, so that gives you an edge. Commonly used three-letter words are also a limited set, and if you see one repeating, that’s a good hint. And so on. Once you’ve gotten a sense of what is a and what is t, h, and e, it gets to be like solving Wheel of Fortune (which, however, did not exist at the time). But I hadn’t approached it like that.

So my knowledge got in the way of actually using my brain. I was using a screwdriver to pull nails.

But still… I knew this thing! It was the real order of the letters! And when, one day in grade 10, a substitute teacher mentioned about how we all knew what etoanirsh was – she wrote it on the board – I was incensed. I didn’t stand up and say something, but I knew she had it wrong. I may have muttered to the person next to me. How can everyone know it? And how can they know it wrong? It’s etaonrish, not etoanirsh! Fool.

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or touch not the Pierian spring.

Not just that, though. My pride in my learning had turned it into a dogma. It was the One True Way, to be used wherever it could, and I was on the right team. Those who thought otherwise were fools. Fools!

It’s just the same sort of thing you see in politics, and social issues, and religion, and grammar. We use our minds to set the world in an order that gives us mastery over it. It’s not a coincidence that comprehend can mean both ‘understand’ and ‘take in, include’. A comprehensive exam is so called not because it tests your comprehension but because it includes everything. We join this desire to comprehend with a desire to dominate, to win, to be better – basic human insecurity. Many people learn one little thing and use it as an omni-trump card, as proof that others are fools. Ha! We own their sorry butts! Lincoln was a Republican, so the Democrats are the real racists! (I’ve actually seen that argument made.) You can’t tell the difference between discreet and discrete, so you must be an uneducated idiot!

And we join this to our tribal instincts to decide who’s on the right team. Dogma, ideology, tribalism. Some people want to blame all of this on theism, but it’s evident in many spheres that have nothing to with religion: politics, sports, social mores, grammar… We decide what is good and what is bad, and from that who is right and who is wrong, and we make our lives – and the lives of others around us – needlessly worse than they could be. Using screwdrivers to remove nails.

Fortunately for me, I had just enough self-doubt and curiosity to want to find out more about this other version. Well, naturally, your frequency distribution will vary according to your sample. There are different dialects, different genres, different times.

In the 1920s, a well-known frequency listing started with etaoinshrdlu. In 1923, the playwright Elmer Rice gave a character in his play The Adding Machine the name Etaoin Shrdlu.

The Adding Machine is an expressionist play, full of the mindless small talk of repetitive unthinking existence. It’s about a man, Mr. Zero, who has been working adding up numbers in a department store for 25 years. On his 25th anniversary of working at the company, the owner calls him in to talk to him. Not to give him a raise, a promotion, or a pen – just to tell him he’s being replaced by an adding machine. He snaps and kills the owner. He surrenders, goes to jail, is executed. He finds himself in the Elysian Fields, where he meets Etaoin Shrdlu, a proofreader who always tried to live a moral existence, always did just what his kind, sweet, patient mother wanted, never disappointed her, always fought his sinful nature. He tried to run away once and join the navy but she stopped him, so he just went on working the right job and living with her and trying to overcome his sinful nature, until one day when he was going to carve a leg of lamb he slit his mother’s throat instead.

Why are these two murderers in the Elysian Fields, where everything is so nice? Shouldn’t they be in hell? Well, they won’t remain, Shrdlu explains. Only the most favoured remain. Anyone who likes may remain, but only the most favoured do. Who are these favoured people, Zero asks? Shrdlu says, despairingly (that’s the stage direction – despairingly),

I don’t know, Mr. Zero. All these people here are so strange, so unlike all the good people I’ve known. They seem to think of nothing but enjoyment or of wasting their time in profitless occupations. Some paint pictures from morning until night, or carve blocks of stone. Others write songs or put words together, day in and day out. Still others do nothing but lie under the trees and look at the sky. There are men who spend all their time reading books and women who think only of adorning themselves And forever they are telling stories and laughing and singing and drinking and dancing. There are drunkards, thieves, vagabonds, blasphemers, adulterers. There is one—

Zero cuts him off and says “That’s enough. I heard enough.” He leaves. He doesn’t want to stay there “with a lot of rummies an’ loafers an’ bums.” He goes and finds himself an adding machine and works on it until he is told his soul is to be recycled, since he’s just taking up space.

We come up with our knowledge, our ideas, our rules, to help us master the world. But if we’re not aware, they master us. Sure, we’ve put everything in order, but is it the right order? Are we putting it to good use? Or are we just using it to hurt others and ourselves? If we don’t check the basis of our rules, consider the premises and evaluate the results, we may just join the cult of etaonrish and find ourselves with – or like – Etaoin Shrdlu.

6 responses to “etaonrish, Etaoin Shrdlu

  1. I don’t know what it means, but i like it.

    • Ah, something strange was going on in my feed. When I came to the site, I could see everything, rather than what I saw, which was random words arranged like concrete poetry.

  2. Informative and entertaining (as always), James, but I’m curious about the “well-known frequency listing” from the 1920s. What was it? I’m not quite that old, but I did set type on a Linotype machine. The leftmost vertical run of keys on a Linotype, operated by your left hand, is “e-t-a-o-i-n.” The next run is “s-h-r-d-l-u.” Linotype machines had famously (in the printing business) and abruptly pushed legions of skilled manual typesetters out of work. I’d have thought that is what Rice and his audience would remember, when his ex-proofreader, so named, interacts with a character pushed out of work by a different machine. In their turn, of course, legions of skilled Linotype operators were more recently pushed out of work by computerized typesetting, but that’s another story.

    • Ah, yes, thank you – I was forgetting that the Linotype machine was the vector for this. Its key layout is based on the frequency of the letters. People know ETAOIN SHRDLU because of that. I should have incorporated that. Too late now…

      Incidentally, the current QWERTY layout of keyboards is as it is in part because people were typing some things too quickly and jamming the keys, so it had to be set up in a way that would slow them down, or at least increase the time between certain common combinations of keystrokes. Another thing in favour of the layout, though, was that the salesmen liked the stunt of typing “typewriter” all on the top row of keys. Alternate keyboards have been proposed, such as the Dvorak, but QWERTY is so well established – who wants to have to relearn all those reflexes?

  3. The version of letter frequency that I first learned was the one your substitute teacher wrote down. In my case, I learned it from the Clifford B. Hicks book Alvin’s Secret Code.

    And I had a similar reaction to yours when I first saw a different version. When I learned that there really were different versions, based on different methods of arriving at the numbers, it was something of an epiphany and a strong push away from prescriptivism.

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