What does the filler text “lorem ipsum” mean?

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Dear Cecil: Cecil, just what the heck does the Latin phrase that starts lorem ipsum mean? I have seen this used as “filler text” for years and have always wondered what it meant. Today I had finally had enough, so I cranked up my favorite search engine and fed it this phrase. You can imagine what I got back thousands of Web pages in various stages of construction. And so I turn to you. Joe Nicholas, via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

This one is deep. Remember etaoin shrdlu? (Maybe you don’t. Never mind, a bulletin on the subject is forthcoming.) Remember the Illuminati and fnord? Lorem ipsum is the same deal — one of those inscrutable phrases that just keeps turning up. Surely it means something. Surely it’s invested with, you know, mysto power. Lorem ipsum, my children. So mote it be.

Before we go any further I’d better explain what we’re talking about. Lorem ipsum is the beginning of a pseudo-Latin passage commonly used as placeholder text when a graphic designer dummies up a page layout. It’s intended to show how the type will look before the copy is available. I say pseudo-Latin because though the passage contains recognizable Latin words, they don’t seem to add up to anything, and some are just jabberwocky — there’s no Latin word lorem, for one thing. Lorem ipsum is only the beginning, by the way. The text continues lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, etc.

In the graphic design business, nonsense filler like this is known, somewhat incongruously, as “greeking,” presumably because “it’s Greek to me.” It was available for many years on adhesive sheets in different sizes and typefaces from a company called Letraset. In pre-desktop-publishing days, a designer would cut the stuff out with an X-acto knife and stick it on the page. When computers came along, Aldus included lorem ipsum in its PageMaker publishing software, and you now see it wherever designers are at work, including all over the Web.

A few years ago someone wrote to Before & After, a desktop publishing magazine (www.pagelab.com), asking what lorem ipsum meant. “It’s not Latin, though it looks like it, and it actually says nothing,” the editors replied. “Its ‘words’ loosely approximate the frequency with which letters occur in English, which is why at a glance it looks pretty real.”

Not exactly. (“Lorem oopsum,” the abashed B&A editors wrote.) Turns out the passage doesn’t just look like real Latin, it is real (although slightly scrambled), and from a famous source. This news came from Richard McClintock, a Latin professor turned publications director at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Curious about what the words meant, McClintock had looked up one of the more obscure ones, consectetur, in a Latin dictionary. Going through the cites of the word in classical literature, he found one that looked familiar. Aha! Lorem ipsum was part of a passage from Cicero, specifically De finibus bonorum et malorum, a treatise on the theory of ethics written in 45 BC. The original reads, Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit … (“There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain …”).

McClintock recalled having seen lorem ipsum in a book of early metal type samples, which commonly used extracts from the classics. “What I find remarkable,” he told B&A, “is that this text has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since some printer in the 1500s took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book; it has survived not only four centuries of letter-by-letter resetting but even the leap into electronic typesetting, essentially unchanged.” So much for the transitory nature of content in the information age.

Just one problem. When I spoke to McClintock recently, he said he’d been unable to locate the old type sample in which he thought he’d seen lorem ipsum. The earliest he could definitely trace back the passage was Letraset press-type sheets, which dated back only a few decades. But come on, you think graphic arts supply houses were hiring classics scholars in the 1960s? Well, maybe they were. But it’s easier to believe that someone at Letraset simply copied the text from an old hot-type source. We’re now faced with the mere technical detail of figuring out which one.

(Update: Richard McClintock kept working at it. Here’s what he found. https://priceonomics.com/the-history-of-lorem-ipsum)

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.