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Thursday, February 10, 2011

ETAOIN SHRDLU, QWERTY, and the Quick Brown Fox

Letter frequency in English, sorted by frequency.

Letter frequency analysis is common in cryptography, and has a marked effect on keyboard layouts.  It also plays a fundamental role in games including Scrabble, hangman, and cryptograms, among others.  Accurate frequencies can only be made with input from a large amount of text, which has been made much easier with computers.  Letter and word frequencies and sentence length can be calculated for specific writers, and are sometimes used to prove authorship.

Linotype keyboard.  Note that lower case letters
are on left, and upper case on the right.  

Newspapers were once composed in a hot-metal printing process on Linotype machines.  The letters on Linotype machines were arranged by letter frequency, so ETAOIN SHRDLU were the first two vertical columns on the left of the keyboard. If a Linotype operator made an error they would have to eject the slug and insert a new one, so it was just easier to run their fingers down the keys to finish the line.

Print side of Linotype slug.

If the slug with the error in it somehow made it past the operator's notice, the distinctive phrase would be quickly detected.  Sometimes, however, it escaped everyone's notice and would be printed in error.  This apparently happened quite often, as the phrase is listed in the OED.

This is a famous example of an erroneous slug that went undetected (7th line).
From an October 30, 1903 NY Times article.

QWERTY is the most popular keyboard layout, named for the top six letter keys on the left.  It is based on a 1873 design by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He sold it to Remington that same year.  It became so popular that it is still used on electronic keyboards, mostly due to the fact that there have not been any alternatives with clear advantages.  The adoption of the QWERTY keyboard and its wide use is a good example of the open standard concept.

Christopher Sholes from his U.S. Patent No. 207,559
issued on August 27, 1878.

Sholes, a newspaper editor and printer, spent years perfecting his layout.  A letter-pair frequency study by an educator named Amos Densmore was said to be an aide in Shole's endeavors.  His first model was only two rows.  He finally arrived at a four row model, with a row of six vowels (including "Y") in the second row below the numbers.  Remington bought the manufacturing rights, and they came up with the final version.  Remington salesmen were able to impress potential customers by typing "typewriter" just using letters from one row.  The Remington No. 2, made in 1878, was the first typewriter to have both lower and upper case letters by use of a shift key.

Modern computer keyboard.

There are alternatives to the QWERTY layout, such as the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, the Maltron, and several others.  But the use of QWERTY is so entrenched, and the others offer no really significant improvements, that it remains the standard.

Movable type with the completed text.  Image has been flipped
horizontally to make the text easily readable.

A pangram is a phrase that uses all the letters of the alphabet.  The most famous is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  This pangram has been used since the late 19th century.  The earliest known use of it was in March 14, 1885.  It appeared in a teachers' journal as a suggestion for handwriting practice.  When the use of typewriters became prevalent it was used again as a practice sentence.  A couple decades later it became widely known.  In the 1950s, Teletype printers were tested at Western Union by using the phrase in all caps followed by all ten numerals, then repeating it in lower case letters, and punctuation marks.  "Is it foxing," was the question asked by technicians.

Screen shot of a font viewer.

Today it is used to test keyboards or to display font samples.  Because it is short and is well-known, it is often used in visual arts.  It has been a gag in many animated features, cartoons, and the phrase is even in Stephen Jay Gould's essay "The Panda's Thumb of Technology".  I remember learning to type by repeating this phrase ad nauseum, but it worked.  My favorite pangram is little known however:  "How quickly daft jumping zebras vex!"

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. I recall sitting down at a computer in a Paris internet cafe and starting to type, only to discover that they do not use a QWERTY keyboard. Took me forever just to write an email.

  2. Interesting! I wonder if that was an odd place, or if they all use a different keyboard design.

  3. I read somewhere that the qwerty was adopted because it slowed speedy typists down to the speed the machine could handle. Once machines were improved, there was a move to come up with a better system. However, by then too many people had learned qwerty.

  4. Interesting! Thanks for the comment, Raphael.