Dept. of Word Lists

Summertime, and My "O" Key Was Faded

Once again award-winning writer and educator Bob Greenman takes us on a journey through words selected from More Words That Make a Difference, a delightful book illustrating word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly.

I bought a new computer keyboard the other day. The one I had worked fine, but many of the letters were almost worn off and others were completely gone, pounded into oblivion by my graceless two-finger typing. Of course, anyone who touch types doesn't need to read the letters, but I don't touch type. I left my high school typing class unable to.

After all these years, I still must look at the keyboard. If I'm typing from my head and looking at the keyboard, I can type a mile a minute with two index fingers, but if I have to copy something, I slow down markedly — look at the paper, look at the keyboard; look at the paper, look at the keyboard. And I literally pound the keys, which partially accounts, I suppose, for the faded letters on the ones I hit most often. I've seen keyboards long-used by writers, secretaries and transcriptionists showing no sign of letter wear because they touch type with gossamer lightness.

gossamer        GAH suh mer
the fine film of cobwebs often seen floating in the air or caught on bushes or grass; a soft, sheer, gauzy fabric: hence, anything thin or insubstantial

A young Southerner, Reynolds Price, has written an exceptionally fine first novel, "A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE" (Atheneum, $3.95), and, all told, Mr. Price looks like one of the most promising talents to have emerged for some time. Mr. Price's opening did put me off; the writing seemed lush, and I feared that this might turn into a light trifle of Southern sweet talk and honeysuckle. But very quickly it became clear that this was no purveyor of gossamer sensibility but a very sure and adult writer with a firm grip on his materials. —William Barrett, April 1962

My faded and obliterated keys are A, D, E, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S, T, U, Y. Ladies and gentlemen, that's more than half the alphabet. And while the E is, understandably, heavily faded, the O and the I are completely gone from my keys, which surprises me, for the E is far more used in written English. (And in spoken English, too, no doubt.) The heavily faded A and U keys bring up the vowel rear. But why is the G so worn, and the H, L, M, N, R, S and T? And, for goodness sake, why the almost rubbed out Y? It's a conundrum.

conundrum      kuh NUHN druhm
a puzzling question or problem

For years nailing down the date and location of the origin of chess was stymied by an archaeological conundrum. Experts had long believed that chess was invented in Asia in the sixth century, but this conclusion was cast into doubt by the discovery, in 1932, of a set of ivory chess pieces in a grave in Italy dating back to the third century. Six decades passed before radiocarbon dating established that the chess pieces were probably of tenth-century manufacture, reviving the original theory. How the pieces found their way into that third-century grave remains a mystery. —Cullen Murphy,  September 2000

Could my conundrum be easily solvable, I wonder? Indeed, what's with that faded Y? Does the adverb-rich writing to which I was addicted in 2008 perhaps explain that virtually letterless key? Could I have gone so unabashedly, unconscionably and unflaggingly overboard adverbially as to have nearly completely worn it off?

Furthermore, was I so agreeably, amenably and, yes, dear reader, lamentably acquiescent in half a decade's e-mail correspondence as to have distractedly, discombobulatedly, even unethically, surfeited my keyboard with yeses — Y-heavy affirmative responses to all and sundry e-mail requests — in addition to tapping out countless adverbial suffixes? Was I so adverbially excessive as to have nearly obliterated our beloved alphabet's penultimate letter, the letter which, preceded by  L, ends so many words I'm fond of using, like atavistically, oxymoronically, monochromatically, cadaverously, pussyfootingly and puissantly?

puissant          PWI suhnt
powerful; mighty; potent

Years ago someone called steam "that great civilizer." Never has it been more alive, more usefully in the service of man, more puissant, than in this fourth decade of the twentieth century. —George W. Gray, January 1937

Then it hit me. Syzygy must have been the straw that dulled the keyboard's Y, the word that at one time permeated my casual conversation and e-mails, the word that had me pounding countless y's on my keyboard and that I shook off my obsession with only when I discovered ensorcelled and worked and wove and wangled that word into every conversation and e-mail for months.

syzygy             SI zuh jee
in astronomy, the alignment of three bodies of the solar system along a straight or nearly straight line, here used figuratively to mean a rare conjunction of two stellar figures: Greek, syzygos, yoked together

1811-1812. A rich autumn of grape harvesting, of golden forests and red sunset skies. The last but two symphonies and the last violin sonata. Lovely declining days and latter-day loves. And the encounter of two suns, Beethoven and Goethe. It was a brief meeting. For centuries the Fates had been preparing the syzygy of these two stars in the firmament of poetry and music. The hour arrives, and the hour passes; their paths have crossed, and each has gone his way. We must wait another thousand years before such an event can occur again. How I envy those who saw them. I even borrow the eyes off such people, and imagine that I too can see the slumbering images of these men reflected as in a pool. —Romain Rolland, February 1929

Although e-mail idiosyncrasies may have played a role in my erstwhile keyboard's worn down Y, there are of course far more prosaic explanations. An online list of the most frequently used words in English helped me to see why most of my keyboard letters were faded or gone. Very simply, they are found in the most commonly used English words.

In addition, most of the letters faded or gone from my keyboard, I have learned, correspond, overall, to the frequency of letter use in the English language. Here's the alphabet with its letters in order of frequency:

E T A O I N S H R D L U C M W F  G Y P  B V K J X Q Z

[Etaoin shrdlu, pronounced eh tay oh in SHIRD loo, is a phrase (of sorts) composed of the 12 most common letters in English, in descending order of frequency. The sequence of letters in the phrase originated from the way the most frequently used letters in the English language appear on the first two lines of keys on the left side of the keyboard of the linotype machine, which, from 1886 until the advent of computerized typesetting, was used to set type for newspapers and other publications. Linotype operators could not start a line over if they made a mistake; they had to finish it, which they did by simply  running their fingers down the two lines of keys on the left side of the keyboard, keys that happened to spell out etaoin shrdlu. Then they would begin the line again. If a linotyper forgot to discard the bad line — by physically lifting it from the banks of type — it would appear in the newspaper. For a century etaoin shrdlu must have appeared in newspapers millions of times.]

As you can see, G is way down the list of letter frequency, yet on my keyboard it's one of the most faded. Could it be because it's a letter in my last name, which I frequently type? I doubt it; I don't type it that much. I'm guessing it's actually my frequent use of agog, gargantuan, gregarious, grudgingly, gung-ho, glug-glug and moo goo gai pan, words I frequently use in e-mail responses to solicitations from individuals in foreign countries who offer me 20 percent of their national treasury in exchange for temporarily depositing the country's entire treasury in my bank account.

The letters on the I and the O keys are no longer visible, completely obliterated. You would think that after all these years I'd nevertheless know the correct key to hit for the letter I wanted. But I continuously hit the wrong key, typing i's for o's and vice versa, and ending up with hos, O thonk, frim, whoch, nit, sime, liik, twi, gi, iol spoll, odoit and koss; and creating sentences like,"Liikong firward ti yiur vosot. See yiu siin."

Despite its worn and bare keys, my former keyboard's B, J, K and V remained pristine — a mystery to me, considering the workout I gave them on my e-mails alone: my frequent use of flibbertigibbit, an affectionate epithet I use when referring to my wife; my labeling of almost everything on television as jejune; my obsessive admiration for Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times's brilliant book reviewer; and my perhaps inordinate use of ovoviviparous as a catchall adjective when I can't think of another (e.g., "I hope the rain dissipates this ovoviviparous humidity"). And yet the B, J, K and V showed no signs of wearing. Go figure.

jejune  juh JOO:N
unsatisfying to the mind or soul; dull; flat; insipid

In Henry Adams, I discovered not only the prototype of the modern thinker but also someone who is more interesting: a viper-toothed, puling, supercilious crank, thwarted in ambition, aging gracelessly, mad at the cosmos, and ashamed of his own jejune ideals. He is nevertheless very dear to me. And he appears in my front-hall mirror. —P. J. O'Rourke, December 2002

And my barely visible L? Perhaps it was those -ology words, which I have a penchant for using even in casual conversation, like epistemology, morphology and philology, not to mention teleology and etiology. In one way or another, gosh darn it, they slip into my e-mails at every turn, almost compulsively. I hope to learn soon the etiology of this admittedly pretentious compulsion and eliminate it, as fewer and fewer friends have been responding to my e-mails.

etiology           ee tee AH luh jee
the cause or origin of something

About 300 children fell ill with stomach cramps and hallucinations and then lost their hair in the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy in the autumn of 1988. According to Moscow News, the illness triggered an exodus from the city, in which parents, desperate to send their offspring to safety, "stormed the railway station, besieged the airport, and battled to get a seat on a bus." In all, 40,000 children were sent away. Whatever its etiology, the affliction known in the USSR today as the "chemical disease" has not disappeared. —Gabriel Schoenfeld, December 1990

But why the H, whose faded left vertical line alone remains on the keyboard? With what words did I pound that letter two-thirds into oblivion? I may have to consult a hierophant for the answer.

hierophant      HIGH yuhr oh fant
an interpreter of sacred mysteries or esoteric principles

To plain people there is an aura of mystery about gold; partly because, as money, they never see it. It sits in subterranean fortresses of incredible complexity, and from their gloomy silence works its queer alchemy upon the fate of nations by processes that only its hierophants can comprehend. —William Orton, February 1932 

As I dump my superannuated and timeworn keyboard, cocoa stains and all, I cannot but admire the way its keys withstood the millions of times my fingertips banged, pounded and pummeled them, and regret that I could not have typed more gently.

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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 30th 2010, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
This just makes me smile to read - and thankfully, I can type it while looking at the screen - not needing to look down since a fair number of my keys are completely worn off, as well.

You are witty and smart and creative in how you pulled this together.

Loved it!!
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Etoain Shrdlu--haven't seen that for years, but I certainly remember reading it in newspapers. Could be the name of a Bulgarian detective! Never knew how it came to pass. Which reminds me: I remember seeing linotype machines at my first newspaper job, each machine with its little bucket of molten lead that got poured into forms to make each line of type. How far we have come!!
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Antonia S. (ORPINGTON United Kingdom)
How I would have loved to have him teach me in high school! With txt spk and the new passion for the eradication of jargon, the language that one has to read every day is becoming boring and sterile. What joy to read this and revel in the richness of the Word. Thank you.
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Harold W.
Too bad more of today's young blogger-heads aren't as literate as
Inspector Etoain Shrdlu.
Speaking of keyboards, why can't we adopt the user-friendly
Dvorak keyboard with its sensible arangement of the alphabet.
And why can't phone keypads be arranged like PC keyboards?
Or their number pads be arranged the same way?
Why can't we re-arrange these to make the S, T, A, ,etc.
more accessible to the typing fingers, or make @ (for e-mail),
$, ., , more accessible, as well? Or 'the', 'and, I, easier to type?
Why can't all the computer keyboard/keypad guys get together
and adopt a universal, common, friendly keypad?
Finally, why can't we adopt the universal metric system?
Calling that revolutionary, Etaoin Shrdlu.
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 11:52 AM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
How difficult looks like this keyboard to me and create admiration for the author, but also makes me smile .
Some words are incomprehensible; AHRDIU or VBGKQJ. Not needind to understand these words, just added letters,one after the other;
Fortunately things are changed now concerning keyboard, concerning a writter, things are easy today.
But if you feel yourself a very soul witter, you are enjoy to read an revel the richness of the word, combining let-
-ters, to together;
Thank you to show that with students.
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Fun article! Thanks!

I'm with Harold W. I've been irritated for decades at our failure to make the Dvorak keyboard standard. It would save countless hours of effort to have the most common keys within reach.

BTW, Bob, if you read this. I learned to a touch-type in my HS typing class (back in 1960). The teacher told us not to look at the keys, but I cheated. However, after a few weeks we had to change typewriters and I found myself at a keyboard with unmarked keys. For a week I found myself pressing keys at random while looking inside the machine to find out which keys moved which strikers. But after that miserable week I really had learned to type without looking.
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Here's a fun, free little voyage of discovery for anyone reading this: Google ETAOIN SHRDLU ... Wait! First, set a timer for as much time as you can really afford to spend, or - well, you know how it goes. Timer set? OK, now Google it, and have fun (bet you didn't know it's a rock band)! Hmmm, I wonder if YouTube has anything with that name - maybe something by the band ...
Wednesday June 30th 2010, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Cody (Eugene, OR)
Oh, goodness, what a wonderful, wonderful column. Every bit of it made me chuckle. I'm still grinning as I think of it! A colleague and I often amuse ourselves (and each other I asssume) by sending sentences astounding suffused with sibilance, assonance, or simple alliteration. Yet I fear nothing we write will ever come close to this fantastic essay. As usual, you get wheels turning in our brains, with new facts and more ideas for finding facts. Thanks much. P.S. As one of the millions of people who type over 100 WPM, I would hate to learn a new keyboard. I would become a dinosaur overnight!

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