Thursday, September 03, 2009

etaoin shrdlu

for anyone raised on wheel of fortune, you may or may have not come to the same conclusion that i did. i wondered "why do they give the contestant R,S,T,L,N, and E for the final puzzle? what is special about these letters?" combining my young knowledge that these were all worth one point in scrabble, i figured that they gave you these letters because they were all common letters, and i further assumed these must be the most common letters (excepting the vowels, which i knew were mostly more common but would make WoF puzzles too easy)

over the years this special knowledge i thought i had tended to backfire, especially in situations like hangman. and it was not until recently that i found myself on the wikipedia page for letter frequency in english words and noticed that the letters across the bottom of this graph seemed to spell something out and it sounded like a name.
i looked up 'etaoin' in google and it had many results. from a historical standpoint this makes sense. in typography, the order that letters would wear out would tend to follow this same order. literary types have made this connection many times also and, as an inside joke, often use 'Etaoin Shrdlu' as a fiction character name.

This 'name' makes a much more pronounceable mnemonic than RSTLNE and also will tend to be much more useful.

i do know that if i am ever a wheel of fortune contestant and i make it to the final puzzle and have no solid guess, i will remember etaoin shrdlu and throw out 'h' as my first consonant because it is more frequent than 'r' and 'l'. proof that studying english has very practical real life applications :)

update: it was bugging me that 'h' is worth 4 points in scrabble and is not part of wheel of fortune's default letters. the only conclusion i can come to is that h is a popular letter, but it usually needs to be paired with another letter (such as s, t, or w) which can drive down its usefulness in scrabble.

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