The Story of Lorem Ipsum: How Scrambled Text by Cicero Became the Standard For Typesetters Everywhere

In high school, the language I most fell in love with happened to be a dead one: Latin. Sure, it’s spoken at the Vatican, and when I first began to study the tongue of Virgil and Catullus, friends joked that I could only use it if I moved to Rome. Tempting, but church Latin barely resembles the classical written language, a highly formal grammar full of symmetries and puzzles. You don’t speak classical Latin; you solve it, labor over it, and gloat, to no one in particular, when you’ve rendered it somewhat intelligible. Given that the study of an ancient language is rarely a conversational art, it can sometimes feel a little alienating.

And so you might imagine how pleased I was to discover what looked like classical Latin in the real world: the text known to designers around the globe as “Lorem Ipsum,” also called “filler text” and (erroneously) “Greek copy.”




The idea, Priceonomics informs us, is to force people to look at the layout and font, not read the words. Also, “nobody would mistake it for their native language,” therefore Lorem Ipsum is “less likely than other filler text to be mistaken for final copy and published by accident.” If you’ve done any web design, you’ve probably seen it, looking something like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

When I first encountered this text, I did what any Latin geek will—set about trying to translate it. But it wasn’t long before I realized that Lorem Ipsum is mostly gibberish, a garbling of Latin that makes no real sense. The first word, “Lorem,” isn’t even a word; instead it’s a piece of the word “dolorem,” meaning pain, suffering, or sorrow. So where did this mash-up of Latin-like syntax come from, and how did it get so scrambled? First, the source of Lorem Ipsum—tracked down by Hampden-Sydney Director of Publications Richard McClintock---is Roman lawyer, statesmen, and philosopher Cicero, from an essay called “On the Extremes of Good and Evil,” or De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum.

675px-Cicero_-_Musei_Capitolini

Why Cicero? Put most simply, writes Priceonomics, “for a long time, Cicero was everywhere.” His fame as the most skilled of Roman rhetoricians meant that his writing became the benchmark for prose in Latin, the standard European language of the middle ages. The passage that generated Lorem Ipsum translates in part to a sentiment Latinists will well understand:

Nor is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure.

Dolorem Ipsum, “pain in and of itself,” sums up the tortuous feeling of trying to render some of Cicero’s complex, verbose sentences into English. Doing so with tolerable proficiency is, for some of us, “great pleasure” indeed.

But how did Cicero, that master stylist, come to be so badly manhandled as to be nearly unrecognizable? Lorem Ipsum has a history that long predates online content management. It has been used as filler text since the sixteenth century when---as McClintock theorized---“some typesetter had to make a type specimen book, to demo different fonts” and decided that “the text should be insensible, so as not to distract from the page’s graphical features.” It appears that this enterprising craftsman snatched up a page of Cicero he had lying around and turned it into nonsense. The text, says McClintock, “has survived not only four centuries of letter-by-letter resetting but even the leap into electronic typesetting, essentially unchanged.”

The story of Lorem Ipsum is a fascinating one—if you’re into that kind of thing—but its longevity raises a further question: should we still be using it at all, this mangling of a dead language, in a medium as vital and dynamic as web publishing, where “content” refers to hundreds of design elements besides font. Is Lorem Ipsum a quaint piece of nostalgia that’s outlived its usefulness? In answer, you may wish to read Karen McGrane’s spirited defense of the practice. Or, if you feel it’s time to let the garbled Latin go the way of manual typesetting machines, consider perhaps as an alternative “Nietzsche Ipsum,” which generates random paragraphs of mostly verb-less, incoherent Nietzsche-like text, in English. Hey, at least it looks like a real language.

via Priceonomics

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (38)
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  • David Bradley says:

    Isn’t it referred to as “Greek copy” alluding to the text being “Greeked”, which doesn’t mean it’s in Greek, it’s just in turn alluding to the phrase that it’s unintelligible and “all Greek to me”?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeking

  • Ayun says:

    Super interesting! Thanky!

  • Marcos says:

    I don’t see why it shouldn’t be used. It still serves its only purpose – to show how a text block will look like, regardless of content.

  • Rosa Alvez-Pantoja says:

    > Or, if you feel it’s time to let the garbled Latin go

    that’s not necessarily needed, as there are interesting variants like http://www.lorem-ipsum.info that offer benefits for typographers, eg. added diacritical marks from major European languages or other charsets like Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic.

  • TaniafromNelson says:

    Great article thanks. Have always wondered “why” and “where from” Interesting background. Cheers.

  • Angelle says:

    I was always wondered why The Interesting background came from and now i know

  • Angelle Wilson says:

    I agree with you Marcos thank you

  • I want to thank you for opening a door for me which provides for years of creative study. Your tantalizing and enthusiastic comments about the Cicero/printing press issue annealed to poor Dr. Fell and some other Latin tales in which the language figures into what justifies the anecdote often in equal measure as the storied content. Or as Flanders O’Connor aptly put it “Everything that rises must converge.” Haunting, no? You have given me a great gift, a pulley with which I can use to take me higher into wider issues . . .perhaps even to my longtime wish to read the Agamemnon of Aeschylus in the original Greek. Again, thank you for unwittingly made quite an effect on me.

  • Quinn Mills says:

    This is a very well written article. I was on google docs ready to write an essay, and then i decided to explore the different templates from google, i opened the resume template and i saw lorem ipsum stuff all over being used as filler text and me being a curious person i started searching the web to find what it means and nothing was working not even google translate, i opened several websites all saying it was jibberish or “filler-text” but when i opened this site it was written well enough that it caught my attention, and i dont really like reading; it usually bores me. but this article really pleased me.
    Thank You Josh Jones, this article hit the spot.

  • Michael Hiller says:

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua
    Incididunt ut labore et dolore
    Consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua
    Incididunt ut labore et dolore

    This is what I found on a google slides science

    WHY?

  • Connie says:

    This is what I thought!! I was so confused xD

  • Kaia says:

    This is all very interesting! I’ve always seen it and never really knew what it meant. well, now I know! :D

  • PD says:

    check latest snap lipsums.com

  • Dharmarao Balaga says:

    It’s a great article, i’ve wondered where it comes from, now i am clear on this some how. Thanks.

  • Bob White says:

    I was reviewing a document and this text (without explanation) suddenly appeared so tried to find out what it meant or to translate it and couldn’t find anything until I read this.
    Thank you so much for the enlightenment, much more interesting that the document I was reviewing as well so a win on all fronts.;o))

  • fh ndiritu says:

    Been coding for a long time now. I have been saying sooner or later am gonna check the meaning of this text I use every day. Here we are! No need to replace it.

  • Pares en Dorma says:

    Dorki es palma met machines fam delorum. Panda fandu klappez vin van Donky.

  • MJ says:

    I always see this line in many websites. I’m so curious what that means.

  • Vempati Satya Suryanarayana says:

    Is theren’t anybody for four centuries to give some meaning to the famous lorem ipsum ?? !!!

  • jai jai says:

    did you know that this is used on the lab report template of the science template

  • lilli says:

    My name is lilli, xxxxxxxxx

  • Chase Johnson says:

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna.

    So this piece of text is wrong I take it. It’s just bull sh*t. Because i’ve tried to decypher it down to this text.

    There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply becasue it is pain, enhanced monitoring procedures, and long-and vitality, so that the labor of a great idea, but do blinds.

    Please help me out here

  • hi says:

    I am a latin2 student and this text caught my attention. I was too lazy to even attempt to translate it and I am glad i just looked it up instead.

  • Daniel says:

    Thank you Josh Jones, for very interesting and well written article. Cheers!

  • Josephus Virgilius says:

    “the text should be insensible, so as not to distract from the page’s graphical features.” This is quite ironic. The whole reason I got distracted from writing my essay is becuse I was so curious about that text. Now I know why there was a bunch of gibberish.

  • Alex and Madison says:

    Bro i showed my gf this and she was confused so we googled it

  • Roslyn says:

    Very interesting …. I’ve seen this on too many templates and always wondered what the text meant. Glad I googled :)

  • Anonyomous says:

    Hello there,

    We need to protect the world .

  • evie tortureducks says:

    its really odd ive never studyed latin i mbarely even see it or heare it yet ive always had an extremely strange fondness and abiltiy to recongnise and evemn understand it for some reason that escapes me even as i read ipsum dolomar ect for the first time i got a starnge feeling of pain and sadness and it was haunting son much so i scrawled it onto a peice of paper and forgot about it till now some few years later and even tho i have never studyed the latin language i knew more or less what it was saying was nonence and very mixed up and then i came to read this and i was correct witch i find even more unnerving and creepy for some reason i seem top be undertanding a launguage i have almpost no contact or history with in a weird kinda way i know english has many of its roots in latin but like im far from a schollar and i find this to be very starnge for some reason i picked you to be the one on this page that would find this most intresting perhalps you share in this strange ability or maybe i just felt you would find it the most intresting i donno but its strange none the less

  • Crystal says:

    Pain is only pursued when good hearted people come under attack . The Good men that do nothing are guilty of evil. Those willing to suffer pain , endure extreme abuse , be willing to be trafficked into a system of evil in order to eventually expose and prevent such abuse to others is Lorem Ipsum – or better said the extremes of Good vs Evil. The best way to describe the Author Cicero’ Gibberish is the idea that a prophets testimony is meaningless until the veil of old is lifted off and we begin to clearly see the Truth. The only way too the TRUTH is understand fully Good vs Evil which is the forbidden fruit if Genesis ! This form of Revelation or Tower of Babel is how your Terrorist communicate and remain under the radar, it how your drug Dealers remain silent and no electronic data is ever retrieved from the placeholder of **Lorem Ipsum**. This meaningless secret meaning holds the Kee’s that unlock any Truth of our history into a world of EVIL , pain , suffering , torment and Sorrow !

  • Diglis says:

    Lorem Ipsum Dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmond tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua

  • Christina Baker says:

    Hello

  • DANIELA ESPINOZA says:

    I was clearing my tablet of apps , unessasery apps and. Came across polaris office a downloaded app .Mind you i did not apply this to my device .I went head and looked into it i came across this pick lorem ipsum. From my findings its still mind boggling to me

  • Carol says:

    How meta. “Gibberish” squared.

  • Constantine Khripin says:

    Having discovered that it’s garbled Latin, I feel somewhat relieved. I used to feel somewhat guilty at overwriting this text in document templates. After all, I did not understand it. Was I erasing some words of ancient wisdom? How could my mediocre musings ever live up to the standard of the mysterious words they were replacing?

    Now, every time I overwrite this text I will relish the destruction of this verbal compost, turning it over like a fallow field to sow my words.

  • Nathaniel S says:

    Everything we do in life brings about pain .wether it is to one’s self ir to another for its been said for every action there is a reaction both positive and negative!! Si it seems that we was warned about the descending values of man and of the gods !!! Just as Solomon said everything is vexation of spirit!!! Not all will agree but a sin to one might be hope for another and life is so falsified and twisted to the betterment of our feeble mind to be lost is truly the only way one can be found to open and close our eyes to live is to die and to die we will be all the more alive ….my conscience torments me not and one last thing for he/she who holds what should shall forever regret what is

  • Deirdre E says:

    It seems that most people don’t take time to look around carefully, investigate, evaluate things they see around them every day.

    My husband pointed out this text (in tiny, tiny font)on the front page of a menu from a local (wonderful) Mexican restaurant here in Arlington, Virginia. I had studied Latin in high school, so set about trying to translate it, recognizing a few normal-looking Latin words right away, but mystified at some that didn’t look familiar to me “nisl” being one of those words! The text was quite small and my eyes are old, so I attempted to take a photo with my cell phone camera to magnify it. Looked up a section of the text on search and discovered this openculture.com explanation!

    What fun it was to read about the origin of the text! My husband is a life-long avid reader of Roman history (English translations only), so was well familiar with Cicero. More recently, my husband and I became big fans of the HBO series Rome, which also gives a historical drama version of Cicero which is quite good in many ways, and we really enjoyed watching the series. Following the series, watch the classic PBS version of “I Claudius” (based on the book of the same name) and you segue to the next portion of Roman history.

    The use of this ‘LOREM IPSUM” text I had NEVER heard of before. I shared this discovery with my sister who is an editor, and she knew about the dummy text (but not the history and origin of it)! If it weren’t for the error someone made including the text on the menu at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, we would have missed the fun. (When you retire, lots of unusual things gain the status of being classified as fun.)

    I feel I definitely should NOT let the owner know the text was included on their menu, by the way. Maybe other curious and observant diners will investigate this little gem of printing history. Perhaps then will then find their way into Roman history?

    KEEP THE TEXT, YES, I say.

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