What Does Lorem Ipsum Mean and Why Does it Show Up Everywhere?

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

No, this isn’t the beginning of some weird, cultish chant. The Lorem ipsum passage is one of the most common quotes in every form of publishing. It shows up in books, advertising, magazines, and almost every place where the printed word can appear.

What does it mean, and why do we see it everywhere?

Lorem ipsum is what printers and graphic designers call “filler text” or “placeholder text.” When designing a page, if the final copy of the text is not yet available, this pseudo-Latin lingo fills the space so designers can get an idea of what the final product will look like. It allows graphic designers to experiment with fonts, text layout, etc.

If you try to create gibberish that doesn’t immediately stand out as gibberish, you will find that it is a much harder task than you would imagine. Having pre-written filler text is invaluable. The Lorem ipsum text has words with the right length, in varying sizes, that look reasonable to the casual observer.

The entire phrase, as it is most-commonly used, is:

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.

In the days before desktop publishing, a company called Letraset produced and sold the Lorem ipsum text on adhesive sheets in various sizes and typefaces. Page designers could paste the text onto the layout and get a good idea of what the final product would look like. These days, we use computers for page design, but the tradition of reaching for the same filler text remains. Online Lorem ipsum generators, such as this one, will give you as much of the text as you want. It will even provide it in different language character sets, including Chinese, Cyrillic, and Morse Code.

An example of Lorem Ipsum filler text provided by Letraset. Click image to expand.

That explains why it is used, but what does it mean? Is it a secret code used in Illuminati circles? Could it have fallen out of Professor Snape’s lecture notes?

The conventional wisdom is that the words mean nothing. The desktop publishing magazine Before & After explained, “It’s not Latin, though it looks like it, and it actually says nothing, Its ‘words’ loosely approximate the frequency with which letters occur in English, which is why at a glance it looks pretty real.” In other words, it looks good, but it is meaningless. It is a bunch of complicated words that ultimately make no sense. Coincidentally, that is exactly how this writer describes every book written by William Faulkner.

An example of Lorem ipsum as filler text, with the same phrase repeated multiple times.

Although this the generally-accepted explanation, it isn’t quite true. If you have any familiarity with Latin or any of the Latin-derived languages, you will have seen some words that seem too good to have been thrown together randomly. In 1994, Hampden-Sydney College’s Latin scholar Richard McClintock noticed the similarity with Cicero’s treatise on ethics, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (“On the Extremes of Good and Evil”). The book was written in 45 B.C.

The passage in question is very close to the Lorem ipsum text — but not quite. There are some letters and words missing. Some are scrambled up. Others are added. McClintock concluded that at some point, likely in the Middle Ages, a typesetter had to make a type specimen book. Since the purpose of the book was to demonstrate the different fonts, the reader should not be distracted by the words. To accomplish this, the typesetter made use of a Latin text and scrambled it enough to make it mostly gibberish.

The relevant section follows, with fragments used in Lorem ipsum underlined. Letters in brackets were added to Lorem ipsum and were not present in the source text:

Sed ut perspiciatis, unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam eaque ipsa, quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt, explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem, quia voluptas sit, aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos, qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt, neque porro quisquam est, qui do lorem ipsum, dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci[ng] velit, sed quia non numquam [do] eius modi tempora inci[di]dunt, ut labore et dolore magnam aliqua m quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum[d] exercitation ullam co rporis suscipit laborios am, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequat [D]Quis aute iure reprehenderit, in voluptate velit esse, quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum, qui dolorem eum fugiat, quo voluptas nulla pariatur? At vero eos et accusamus et iusto odio dignissimos ducimus, qui blanditiis praesentium voluptatum deleniti atque corrupti, quos dolores et quas molestias excepturi sint, obcaecati cupiditate non provident, similique sunt in culpa, qui officia deserunt mollitia animi, id est laborum et dolorum fuga.

When translated, with the words from Lorem ipsum underlined, the passage is as follows:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of reprobating pleasure and extolling pain arose. To do so, I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again 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. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure? On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain.

McClintock said, “What I find remarkable 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.”

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