The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

The ability to focus and concentrate seems to elude me today. I know that being overtired has a great deal to do with that. And I’m not getting any younger. But “fogbrain” is a dangerous thing to have in these days of the internet. I have been flitting from one web page to the next for the past 4 ½ hours. It’s time to get serious.

Once I’ve picked a topic to blog about, I usually enjoy the research process. I love learning everything I can about a subject, digesting all that information, and then…

Ohhhh. I just lost another hour. Dammit!

What was I saying?

Oh yeah. Research. I love digesting all that information and then producing what I hope is an informative and yet entertaining post for you. I want you to enjoy learning stuff, you know? After all, connecting one’s edification to one’s happy place is a recipe for success.

I knew what topic I wanted to write about 5 hours ago. Lorem Ipsum. I’m sure you’ve seen those garbled paragraphs of gibberish that graphic designers and printers use to show what text would look like in their latest website or brochure or template or packaging design. (And given my inability to concentrate, all my research has been looking like lorem ipsum today.)

I braced myself before Googling lorem ipsum. I was afraid that all I would get back was page after page of templates with incomprehensible placeholder text that would not tell me what I want to know: What’s the story with this pseudo-Latin-adjacent garble, and why do designers use it so faithfully rather than just creating random gibberish of their very own?

I expected rather slim pickings with regard to the history of this weird, muddled stopgap language. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were the only one who cares. But to my shock, I discovered that I’m completely wrong in those assumptions.

In fact, there has been much ado about lorem ipsum over the years. For the uninitiated or curious people out there, this photo shows you the full body of the lorem ipsum text:

It doesn’t exactly trip over the tongue, does it? But it does its job. It takes away the power of the words in a layout. The words simply become font, a mere element of the overall design. Just for fun, I provide you with this translation by Jaspreet Singh Boparai, who tried to make it as incoherent in English as it is in Latin.

“Rrow itself, let it be sorrow; let him love it; let him pursue it, ishing for its acquisitiendum. Because he will ab hold, uniess but through concer, and also of those who resist. Now a pure snore disturbeded sum dust. He ejjnoyes, in order that somewon, also with a severe one, unless of life. May a cusstums offficer somewon nothing of a poison-filled. Until, from a twho, twho chaffinch may also pursue it, not even a lump. But as twho, as a tank; a proverb, yeast; or else they tinscribe nor. Yet yet dewlap bed. Twho may be, let him love fellows of a polecat. Now amour, the, twhose being, drunk, yet twhitch and, an enclosed valley’s always a laugh. In acquisitiendum the Furies are Earth; in (he takes up) a lump vehicles bien.”

The theory is that if a printer were to place understandable text in a sample, people would focus on the words and what they were saying, rather than looking at the color, font, and layout of the product. Words are powerful. The information conveyed by the words might bias the customer against said product. It would never do to use a pro-Trump story on the cereal box sample packaging you’ve created for a liberal customer, would it? And if you put John-Paul Sartre’s treatise on atheistic existentialism on your website design for the Vatican, you’d most likely lose the account.

(This is me, resisting the urge to go rogue and start reading about atheistic existentialism.)

Another nifty thing about lorem ipsum is that printed drafts that contain these words are much less likely to be mistaken for a final version. It would be a really expensive mistake to have more than a million copies of a sample layout for an ad campaign appear within the pages of Vogue Magazine.

And because of its varied word size and spacing, and the frequency of repeated letters, at first lorem ipsum looks like your language. And that’s regardless of what that language is, as long as it’s written in the Roman alphabet that so many languages, like English, use these days. Just don’t look at the actual words too closely.

So, yeah, gibberish it is, then. But why this particular gibberish? Where did it come from? Apparently, I’m not the only one who has wondered about that. Thank goodness Richard McClintock, a Latin scholar who must possess a lot more focus and follow-through than I do, was on the case. He was able to track down the source of lorem ipsum by focusing on one word in the passage: consectetur. It’s a Latin word, but it’s not very common. (It basically means enhanced.)

Given the rarity of that word in documented Latin text, it didn’t take him long to discover the root source of lorem ipsum. It’s from Cicero’s “De Finibus Bonorum Et Malorum”, sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33. Lorem ipsum is a chopped up, modified and scrambled version thereof. (Why no one has seen fit to make a Wikipedia page for McClintock, the discoverer of the origins of lorem ipsum, is beyond me.)

Cicero lived from 106 BC to 43 BC, and was then beheaded by order of none other than Marc Antony. (You might say his life was “cut short”. See what I did there?) But before that, he was an extremely prolific writer. Fortunately, he was posthumously declared to be a “Righteous Pagan” by the church. In other words, the church realized that he hadn’t been introduced to Christianity, as it did not exist during his time, but he had led a virtuous life, so he got a religious “get out of damnation free” card. And as a side benefit, the church saw fit not to destroy all his writings.

If you’d like to see a translation of Cicero’s original text from which lorem ipsum was born, check it out here on the Wikipedia page. It’s a very dense, yet well-thought-out treatise on pleasure and pain.

So, have we been using lorem ipsum since the age of Cicero? Most assuredly not. According to Wikipedia, movable type wasn’t even invented until the year 1040. Before that, we only had woodblock printing, which came about around the year 200 (or about 243 years after Cicero was standing before the pearly gates, most likely in a state of great confusion). It’s a safe bet that no one would waste a perfectly good woodblock to make a lorem ipsum sample.

Richard McClintock theorizes that lorem ipsum was created in the 15th century, because the works of Cicero were extremely popular at the time. Unfortunately, no samples of lorem ipsum from that period are extant. But then, why would anyone have bothered to preserve them? Would you keep a sample of a sample? (If so, newsflash: you’re a hoarder.)

But after McClintock’s brilliant detective work and revelation, another theory cropped up, based on yet another single “word” in lorem ipsum: Lorem. It is not a Latin word. So where did it come from?

It seems that Latin scholars are diligent when it comes to research, because an uncredited scholar tracked down all the versions of the Cicero passage that he could, and what he discovered was that one version, printed in 1914, could not fit the word dolorum (meaning sorrow) onto one page. Therefore “do-“ appears at the end of one page, and “lorem” starts on the next page. That would be a pretty fascinating coincidence if it’s not the source of our beloved gobbledegook.

We know for sure that this filler text has been around since at least the 1960’s, because we have examples of it from a French company called Letraset, which used this passage for the dry-transfer sheets they produced in various fonts, for people who wanted to rub lettering onto something. Some of digital font producers use this same passage to this day, as shown here.

So that’s almost everything you need to know about lorem ipsum, except for a few juicy tidbits. First, some people, who can’t make up their minds about what message they want to promote, have Lorem Ipsum tattoos.

Second, a lot of sites have humorous filler generators based on Lorem Ipsum. My favorite is the Bob Ross Happy Text, which on my latest visit came up with this: 

“No pressure. Just relax and watch it happen. Anyone can paint. Everybody’s different. Trees are different. Let them all be individuals. Play with the angles. In your imagination you can go anywhere you want. If you do too much it’s going to lose its effectiveness. I like to beat the brush. That easy. God gave you this gift of imagination. Use it. Son of a gun. No worries. No cares. Just float and wait for the wind to blow you around. Even the worst thing we can do here is good. Now we don’t want him to get lonely, so we’ll give him a little friend. Let your imagination be your guide. You have to make these big decisions. Decide where your cloud lives. Maybe he lives right in here. Let’s put some highlights on these little trees. The sun wouldn’t forget them. How do you make a round circle with a square knife? That’s your challenge for the day. We’ll put some happy little leaves here and there. Isn’t that fantastic? You can just push a little tree out of your brush like that. It takes dark in order to show light. Once you learn the technique, ohhh! Turn you loose on the world; you become a tiger. This is the time to get out all your flustrations, much better than kicking the dog around the house or taking it out on your spouse. See there, told you that would be easy. And right there you got an almighty cloud. A happy cloud. Let’s make a nice big leafy tree. Think about a cloud. Just float around and be there. Very easy to work these to death. Everything is happy if you choose to make it that way. A little happy sunlight shining through there. Here’s something that’s fun. I was blessed with a very steady hand; and it comes in very handy when you’re doing these little delicate things.”

That site is a great one to visit when you need a smile.

The final juicy tidbit is that human beings can turn anything into a controversy. Some design professionals want lorem ipsum to be avoided at all costs. They say that if you are designing a layout that’s going to be driven by words, you should use real words. These “anti-ipsters” go on to say that when you use lorem ipsum, your design is not enhancing the meaning of the content. Instead, your content is enhancing your design. Gasp!

That, that is what you want to turn into a scandal? Please. Cicero is probably laughing from on high.

Sources in addition to those cited above:

I wrote an actual book, and you can own it! How cool is that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: