The Story of Lorem Ipsum: How Scrambled Text by Cicero Became Used by 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.


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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Com­pelling Case That the “Dead Lan­guage” Is an “Eter­nal Lan­guage”

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Can Mod­ern-Day Ital­ians Under­stand Latin? A Youtu­ber Puts It to the Test on the Streets of Rome

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

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Michael Schwartz says:

    Salve! Apud scholam meam Lati­nam Lin­guam docui. Sed apud Uni­ver­si­tatem Birm­ing­hamiensem Grae­cam lin­guam docui. I chose Ancient (as well as Mod­ern) Greek pre­cise­ly and pri­mar­i­ly because of “Cicero’s com­plex, ver­bose sen­tences.” You said it. I regret hav­ing stud­ied Latin to what in Eng­land and Wales is called Advanced Lev­el — the Latin books were dri­v­el and trash. The Greek books were, by con­trast, inspir­ing. Regard­ing the lorem ipsum, the con­sumer pro­gramme That’s Life read out a let­ter which fea­tured a cer­tain Clas­si­cal tone to a pack­et of break­fast cere­al. The Lorem ipsum had actu­al­ly been print­ed on the cere­al box­es!!! Mehercule! Di Immor­tales! O tem­per, O mores! Michael Schwartz, Mac­cles­field, Eng­land.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.