What on earth does THAT word mean?

It’s not an acronym. It is sort of a neologism, though it’s hardly new, and has already pretty much disappeared from our language, leaving barely a whisper behind.

Shrdlu is the second half (my favorite half) of the nonsense phrase etaoin shrdlu which comprises the order of frequency of the twelve most commonly used letters in the English language.

If it looks vaguely familiar to you, then perhaps you’ve had a nodding acquaintance with pre-computer journalism.

The relationship of etaoin shrdlu to publishing is that that sequence is found, twice, in vertical rows on a Linotype machine’s keyboard; Linotype machines are how most type was set for newspapers, books, and broadsheets from 1884 through the early 1980s.

In my mind there’s a unique sound memory that goes with shrdlu – not in pronouncing it, but in how it was produced – the rapid clinking sound of the Linotype keyboard at work. And I remember the deeper metallic clanking sound of a complex Linotype machine creating a slug of lead type for a column of news for the Gary (IN) Post-Tribune, where my father was the City Editor.

Dad got his college degree in journalism in 1931, and began his reporting career at the Indianapolis Star. Before long, however, with a growing family to feed and house, he left journalism for more lucrative jobs in public relations. But printer’s ink was always in his blood, and for the last two decades of his career he returned to journalism.

One on my fondest memories of my father is the Saturday night, sometime in the late 1950’s, when he took me with him to see how the Sunday morning edition “happens.” That’s when I met the Linotype machine, and learned shrdlu.

Dad’s City Editor desk was at one end of the very intense, very noisy, cavernous room where AP and UPI wire service machines spewed out stories from around the world; where stories became slugs of lead type and proofreaders caught errors in all that mirror-image verbiage; where individual letters became handset headlines, and galleys of finished pages were sent off to the press room. I was thrilled with all the activity; I could practically SEE important words ecstatically flying around in the ink-, machine oil-, and hot lead-scented atmosphere.

Just before press time Dad gave me an “assignment” for the Sunday morning paper! He pulled a snippet of a story off one of the wire service printers. It was meant to be a “filler” story – to take up empty space on a nearly-finished newspaper page. This story was about a dispute between neighboring friends and a pet dog. Dad told me to write a quick headline for the story. Well, I took this assignment very seriously. I sat down at a desk, read the twenty- or thirty-word story several times over, then pondered what would be the perfect headline – maybe not Pulitzer quality, but close.

I decided that alliteration would catch the reader’s eye. I debated between “pet” and “dog” for the headline, then chose “pal” for “friend,” so had to use “pet.” Now, how to get some action, some emotion into the story’s headline? Something that begins with another “P.” I was caught up in the heady world of journalism, blissfully unaware when my Dad began pacing behind me. All but “my” page had already been sent to the press room, and the boss’s daughter was holding up production.

Okay, I had Pet and Pal; now how to connect them into a headline for this story? Finally I had it: “Peevish Pal Pokes Pet.” Dad grabbed the notebook page from me before I could change my mind, practically ran with it to the Linotype operator, who set the line. The lead slug was handed off to the pressman hovering over the final galley. The page was now complete, and was trundled off to the press room. Finally finished for the night, the Linotype operator smiled at me, and before he shut off the machine he ran his index finger down the second row of the right side of his keyboard. Then he activated the Linotype, and handed me a line of type that read SHRDLU. I felt as if I’d just been blessed by Clio or Calliope or some other Muse of writing.

And there was one more wonder yet to come that evening. Dad and I walked to the small balcony overlooking the huge presses two floors below us. The pressroom foreman was watching the balcony, and he and Dad exchanged hand signals. Dad nodded and shouted down, “Okay, boys, let’s put it to bed.” The foreman hit a large button that set off a klaxon and a couple of flashing red lights, and slowly the presses began to roll. Tons of off-white paper revolved and stretched and traveled over curved inked embossed plates. I could hardly breathe! Miles of newsprint spun and danced, met and parted, were sliced and folded, and somehow, miraculously, became the Sunday morning edition of the Post-Tribune that was even now being loaded onto delivery trucks.

Dad yawned and said it was time to go home. We got our coats from the chair behind his desk. A pressman, who’d run up two flights of stairs, handed him a copy literally “hot off the press.” Dad didn’t bother to look at it, yet. He knew every inch of what was printed there. Even the little filler story with the alliterative headline on page 32. I was so proud of my father I could barely contain myself and nearly cried. But I didn’t, because I was the daughter of a JOURNALIST. I was now a bit of a journalist myself. So I clutched the talisman in my pocket a rectangular piece of metal on which was written the magic word:SHRDLU – and went home with my Dad, the journalist who had just made the Sunday edition “happen.

PS – There is a poignant, well-done 30-minute online documentary, produced in 1978 by the New York Times, about the demise of the venerable Linotype. It’s called “Farewell, ETAOIN SHRDLU” and can be seen at https://vimeo.com/127605643

There is also a 3-minute piece from The Atlantic at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/celebrating-linotype-125-years-since-its-debut/238968/

26 replies
  1. Alison Heins
    Alison Heins says:

    This blog post is a GEM! I felt kind of on pins and needles reading it, viscerally embracing the whole scene. Gives me a bit of longing for the “good old days” before the elusive ease of digital communication.
    Thanks for keeping up the blogs. I enjoy every one, but take my time to comment, as I feel compelled to digest and THINK about what you’ve offered up.
    Talk soon!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Writing this blog post increased my understanding of how much my culture has changed, how much my culture has changed me, and how different my expectations are from what they might have been in a pre-digital world. Fascinating to be living it and watching it at the same time!

      Reply
  2. Starr Rohrman
    Starr Rohrman says:

    Hi Cynthia – I always enjoy and look forward to your blogs. I didn’t know your Dad was the City Editor of the Gary Post Tribune. I thought your memories of your Dad and the city room were wonderful. It reminded me of the summer I worked as a copy girl in the city room at the Chicago Tribune. I went back with you and your memory of the sights and sounds. The constant noise of those Linotype machines. The city editor’s desk was at the head of a room full of activity with other editors desks scattered about. It was a huge room. A very exciting place. My main job seemed to be keeping everyone in coffee and donuts. The room that fascinated me was the morgue where reporters could verify information that was archived. Hard to imagine that job then without computers. Sad to think of the demise of so many grand newspapers around the world. Stay well and Happy Easter. ox

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Starr, what a joy to discover others in my life who, unbeknownst to each other, also had connections with newspaper journalism “back when”! The memories are ephemeral, seeming often like the product of dreams. Sort of like my memory of my family’s first phone – a wooden box that was cranked to rouse the village switchboard operator. And the absolute thrill of getting my own “princess” phone – turquoise, no less! – when I was 15. Can these be “real” memories as I sit with an iPhone in my hand? (subtext – “am I THAT old??”).

      Reply
      • Starr Rohrman
        Starr Rohrman says:

        Another Chicago Tribune story…The next summer I worked for the big shot editorial writer whose office was in the tippy top of the Tribune Tower. The first day he asked me to make coffee. I was so nervous I forgot to put water in the lower part of the pot, plugged it in and burned it to a crisp. He was a very nice man (can’t remember his name) and brought a new pot in the next morning. I sat at the reception desk but the phone seldom rang. My job was to tear the editorial page from the paper each day and file it in a huge log book. Few people ever came to his office but every first first edition books came often and I spent the summer reading the most wonderful new books. And a few from his vast library that I always wanted to read. It was a glorious summer!

        Reply
  3. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    What a marvelous (and well writ) memory! I was right there. Your parent memory takes me back up the marble stairs to my father’s forest service office above the Olympia post office, with the water cooler and cone-shaped paper cups; and to Mottman’s home goods with the basket that zipped up to mezzanine with my mother’s payment for curtains or whatever and with her to the shiny green tile floor of Miller’s department store—with an elevator!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It is such a pleasure to me to see how this blog post opened up fond memories for readers! Thanks for adding yours, Gretchen.

      Reply
  4. Ann Medlock
    Ann Medlock says:

    This has me all teary. What a wonderful memory. I go back to those Linotype days–was so awed by the guys who did that work so rapidly and perfectly. And the noise. Including newsrooms full of clattering typewriters and reporters yelling Copy! and and and. I’m looking right now at a copy pencil from the Daily News and wishing I had a stack of yellow copy-paper pages to edit.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Powerful memories, held in “circulation” by the printer’s ink component of our blood! Thanks, Ann.

      Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      From back in the days when you and I were “besties” and trying (not terribly hard) to stay out of trouble!

      Reply
  5. Damian Trenshaw
    Damian Trenshaw says:

    Hi Cyndi;
    Your story reminds me of being a Gary Post Tribune carrier, delivering about 40 copies to readers in my Glen Park neighborhood at age 12. My two older brothers had the route first and passed it on to me like some kind of legacy because Post routes were in great demand back in those WWII days. I also remember the Sunday editions of The Post and several Chicago newspapers being so heavy with ads, I could carry only 10 or 12 of each at a time. And I remember reading your Dad’s folksy columns when I got older. It was a real pleasure meeting and talking to him on your wedding day.

    Thanks for the fond memories.
    Love you;
    Damian.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Now THERE is a whole new set of memories! Of my wedding day I remember especially the hospitality and generosity you and Patty showed to everyone. Thank you, Damian. Love backatcha!

      Reply
  6. cynthia
    cynthia says:

    This delightful memory of time with your dear father brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips.

    Memories of following my father and Saturday morning trips to the Hardware Store and the delight of dipping hands into bins of all sizes of nuts, bolts and screws, flooded back. Dad could fix anything and everything and always found a way to use another helper.

    Thank you for SHRDLU

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      What a delight, to experience the memories this blog post is stirring up from readers! Sometimes, when I wonder “Why bother?” about writing yet another one, this is an answer. Thanks, Cynthia.

      Reply
  7. christina b.
    christina b. says:

    I love this, Cynthia! Thank you for taking me back in time to this exhilarating moment and for the arc of time it represents. There are very tangible ways that folks in our age group fell in love with words, and I bet many of us could recite that moment of aha. Now I have grandchildren for whom words are boring compare to CGI visuals, whose brains do not turn on when I read them sentences from a page, who wait for the movie to thrill them. I don’t have a word for this shift, for the loss that I as a writer feel about this, or for the world created by what has fallen silent. (Will QWERTY be next?) I know I appreciate how you bring things to the surface for my pondering. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Yes, QWERTY is the SHRDLU of this era (hmmm . . . maybe a poem lurks in that statement!). If/when the infrastructure goes down, and “delete” is pressed in our digital life’s macro-keyboard, it is the printed word that we will cherish even more. I have a few handwritten letters from my grandchildren that, along with my birth certificate and insurance policies, I’d grab to save from a burning house! I can’t quite wrap my head around the shift from words constructed by the alphabet to images constructed of 1s and 0s. But I don’t have to understand it, ’cause I got printer’s ink in my DNA! Love from a Shrdlu Sistah, C

      Reply
  8. Mary Cook
    Mary Cook says:

    Absolutely loved hearing about your dad. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about it before and now I understand why words are so important to you. You have always had the gift of putting the best words in the right place to get right to the point And heart of your readers and your friends. I always love that about you. Fondly Mary Cook

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thanks, Mary. Yes, I’m afraid “wordsmith” is far more than a hobby for me – it’s a calling, a lifestyle, and perhaps even an ailment! Good to hear from you.

      Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      “Magical” is what words are all about, as you well know, Johnny! Let’s never lose our joy in that magic.

      Reply
  9. Nikki Coyote
    Nikki Coyote says:

    Hi Cynthia, What a joy to see your delightful and educational post! 🥰

    Lunch sometime soon? Commons has variety of food and is good. Restaurant at Goosefoot is great. Your thoughts?

    I’ve been vaccinated – both shots! I continue to wear my masks.

    Reply
  10. Dan Meyer
    Dan Meyer says:

    Cynthia – Iove the story of your dad taking you to where it all happened. I could imagine it in the eyes of a girl proud of her dad. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      And who better than a TEACHER to understand the mystery of learning through this kind of experience! Adapted from a beer commercial: “from one word-lover to another . . . Shrdlu!”

      Reply

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