Lorem ipsum: Filler Fail, Killer Tale

Antigone

The team at Antigone love a good letter – and this week’s mailbag did not disappoint. We received a fascinating missive from an esteemed reader who daintily signs off as “A Shy and Now Retiring Professor of Classics”. It is the only letter we can remember that had already been dropped to the floor in shock before the toast fell from our mouth onto it.

Dear Antigone,

We hope this message finds you well in these difficult and unprecedented times. I hope the family is keeping well too?

Perhaps you can help me with something that has puzzled me for six decades and more? I remember it well in the Chuckery Hotel: it was the summer of 1969, and I was leafing through the Walsall Observer while waiting for a gig (by Earth, I think: whatever happened to them?). I was desperately hunting for a car with more than three wheels, and my eye was caught by the enclosed advertisement:

Walsall Observer and South Staffordshire Chronicle, 22 Aug. 1969.

I knew technology was moving fast but I was shocked not to have any clue about what this hot new lingo heralding the Vauxhall range meant. Since I could not “overcome the language barrier”, as the advert breezily suggested I should, a quick bike ride to Sutton took me to the Jennens team. The forecourt manager (with a face like fourpence) told me in no uncertain terms: “It’s Latin, yow saft clarnet”. So I spent the rest of the summer trying to make the Latin work. I understood diddly-squat – sweet F.A. but at least it inspired me to give academia a pop.

Please, please, please help me Antigone!

[Name, address, photograph (fold-out and pop-up) and 25m swim badge supplied.]


Well, Professor, do we have news for you? This text is indeed Latin and your advert is, we believe, the first appearance in public of the legandary “Lorem ipsum” text. Perhaps you’ve seen poorly constructed and unfinished websites (believe us!) which have this arcane text – or at least chunks of it – appear somewhere as a placeholder. Like Japanese knotweed, the stuff is everywhere and shows no sign of shifting. In fact, you can generate as much as you want of the filler here, then run it on repeat until the cows come home.[1]

“That’ll do: print!” (credit @GraphicDesignF via Twitter).

Down to business, then. Let’s turn our attention to the iconic opening paragraph of the Lorem text in its canonical form:

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.

Word. Couldn’t have put it better myself. But… if it is Latin… what the hell does it mean? We turn in confidence to our resident nonsense-whisperer, Jaspreet Singh Boparai, who valiantly wrings out the following good sense:

Rrow itself, let it be sorrow; let him love it; let him pursue it, ishing for its acquisitiendum, but so falled upon, at the tim of that wa, such that with some great hardship and anguish. But at lea so that I come; whoever, with practice, otherco ourd of hardship, unless so that someonep of that follows, just in time. Twho, ye, irurly sorrow in will have taken hold of; in pleasure he wants ittle to be bien by suffering: let none run away: he is born. It was takeded out; let them be; desiringing obscures: they won’t fal flt, they who abandon their duties are in fault; the sou softens, that is, of hardships.

Clear as clementines, eh?

Well, there are any number of internet wiseacres to tell you that this filler text is half a millennium old, artfully knocked together by some crafty printer in the 1500s. Not quite. It is instead precisely 65 years old, and simultaneously 2,065 years old.


This garbled Latin first appeared on the scene in 1966, used by the London company Letraset as filler to show off the various typefaces they sold as scratch-and-transfer stencils. The best way to do that was to have text that looked like something, while in reality being nothing at all. As a contemporary industry journal put it, the Letraset “Body Type” was “based on Latin to give a meaningless text with the correct overall ‘colour’ for most European languages.”[2] But a year later and the wags at Advertisers Weekly were joking that

all the best copy nowadays is being written in Latin. In the old and slapdash days, designers used to indicate body copy on roughs with lines; or, if they were feeling wildly artistic, with rows of little cuneiform squares and circles, reminiscent of an ancient Assyrian inscription… The current practice is to lift a slab of Letraset body type and to whip it down smartly. And it’s all in Latin. This has undoubted advantages. Not only is it quicker and neater, but it gives the average client – who, I am able to reveal, didn’t get a First in classics – a sharp inferiority complex...

Nevertheless, the correspondent was ready to tell the world the awful truth:

It looks like Latin, to be sure. It also sounds like Latin. But Latin it isn’t. It contains many a word which never passed Roman lips from the days of Romulus and Remus to the time of Attila, or whoever it was that finally put the city to fire and the sword. If, for instance, anyone had ever said ‘eronylar’ to Julius Caesar, he would probably have had a couple of cohorts flung at him. Justifiably, too.[3]

For those with stuff to sell, this sophisticated but nonsensical text proved useful. Take this advert of December 1969 for loyalty stamps from Scotland’s oldest daily, the Aberdeen Press and Journal:

Now take an ever closer look at those tickets, discerning motorist:

By 1970, advertisers across Europe were using the text and explicitly highlighting its nonsensical absurdity. Come the 1980s, and many a software developer is deploying this faithful friend as its filler text, thus paving the way for its globetrotting success as the placeholder supreme when the Internet started to find its feet.

But where did this Latin-but-not-Latin text actually come from?

It’s at this point that we have to leap more than two millennia back, to the turbulent times of the 40s BC. Pompey the Great is dead, Julius Caesar has been appointed Dictator for ten years, and all your average Romans were starting to wonder what they had let themselves in for. Meanwhile, the statesman and orator Cicero – whose career had risen and fallen and never really risen again – was consoling himself with the retirement project of becoming Rome’s answer to Plato. A devotee of ‘Academic scepticism’, Cicero sought to explore rival ideas about ethics, physics, politics and the universe at large through meticulously argued philosophic dialogues.

One of the most widely read of these remains his De finibus bonorum et malorum – an involved discussion “On the ends (or the extreme points) of the good and the bad”. In other words, if you were to rank all the good and bad things in the world, what would be the top-most (and bottom-most) things in those categories for you, and why? This five-book romp was worked up in the summer of 45 BC and dedicated to Marcus Junius Brutus, who seven months later would have a sharp and pointed exchange with Caesar on the Ides of March.

In the first book of De finibus, set at Cicero’s villa near Cumae on the Bay of Naples, the grand old man debates a young whippersnapper named Lucius Torquatus. To Cicero’s general alarm, Torquatus is fully signed up to a controversial theory of pleasure as the ultimate good, (in)famously propounded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC).

But hang on a minute…

Why on earth are we now talking about pleasure and pain in Ancient Rome? To answer that, let’s pop briefly over to Christ’s College, Cambridge. In the early 20th century, the confirmed bachelor W.H.D. Rouse, a former fellow of that fine institution, was earning some pocket money as series editor for the new Loeb Library of Greek and Latin texts. Sticking with the friends he knew best, he commissioned his quondam colleague Harris Rackham to produce a new translation of De Finibus to face off against Cicero’s Latin text. The result appeared in 1914 and has remained in print ever since:

I’m sorry. This tangent seems even worse than the last. Whither the wisp are you going with this, Antigone?

Patience, dear reader, we can show you – if, that is, you’re ready for one last leap through time and space. Let’s fast-forward fifty years to London in the Swinging Sixties. You can picture the scene. Whilst humming Michelle, a hip and happening Letraset employee wanders around the second-hand bookshops of Bloomsbury in search of a Latin text. He or she finds a battered Cicero Loeb – perhaps one with that rather seedy leather binding – and sees that it (or rather half of it) is in the language of choice: Latin. The book flops open at a random page (36, if you’re counting), and the words flow forth:

Take a look at the black and white of the left page, and you may feel some familiarity with it:

To previous readers of the book, these words were simply section 1.32 of Torquatus’ speech. But to our Legend of Letraset, it was ideal that the page began not just mid-argument or mid-sentence but even mid-word: dolorem had been painfully severed in twain between the two spreads. Overjoyed with what he found, this enterprising employee started scribbling over the words, crossing some out and adding some random letters where he thought they would cause some organised chaos.

Well, OK, that probably didn’t quite happen. More probably, some clever sort at Letraset managed to get hold of some galleys of type from the Loeb De Finibus. Did he or she know someone in Heinemann’s warehouse at the Windmill Press in Kingswood? Or were they lurking in a conveniently placed skip? At any rate, having taken hold of a couple of these at random, this puckish printer started fiddling with the type in wondrous wise.

To see the bizarre outcome we should compare Torquatus’ careful sentences with what was offered up in the original Letraset sheets. We find

<do>lorem ipsum, quia dolor sit, amet, consectetur, adipisci

become

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing

Thus one (vital) word is lost, and a curiously English-looking participle or gerund (“fancy adipiscing with me?”) closes the line.

Onwards gallops the horseplay:

velit, sed quia nonnumquam eius modi tempora incidunt

becomes

elit, sed diam nonnumy eiusmod tempor incidunt

Letters are removed with wild abandon, and rogue ones haphazardly inserted from hereon in.

After eight or so lines of jiggery-pokery, the “Letraset Master” decided to look elsewhere, lest any underlying sense shine through. Flick forward twenty pages in the Loeb (to 1.51 on p.56), and the Latin begins (again mid-flow):

Perfect! So here, with greater brutality than we have seen hitherto, this evil genius managed to torture

molestias accessio potest fieri, quanta ad augendas

into

molestaie son fier ad augendas

after which

cum conscientia factorum, tum poena legum odioque

becomes

cum conscient to factor tum poen legum odioque.

And so the carnage continues to run amok.[4]

The grim work done, Letraset were ready to share with the world their meaningless filler text – known in the industry as ‘greeking’ (because jargon that makes no sense “is all Greek to me”). Almost sixty years on and this Latin-if-you-squint nonsense somehow seems to fill any white space that is all dressed up with nowhere to go.


The text from which “lorem ipsum” comes has Torquatus making a simple case: no-one pursues pain because he loves pain. Rather, painful exercises are undertaken in order to attain some greater good: laborious exercise is pursued not for itself but for the beneficial outcomes it brings. Some irony, then, that the painful business of picking apart and destroying these Latin words brought the company a pleasurable product that took the world of typography by storm, but brought the rest of the world the recurrent pain of translations doomed to failure.

And what of the original author? Not so good. Sixteen months later, in December 43, Cicero was dead – his head decapitated, the hands that traced lorem ipsum severed, and the tongue that first read them aloud pierced by the pins of Fulvia, the furious wife of Cicero’s last great adversary, Marc Antony. How her eyes would now roll to see Cicero’s Latin live on – although so battered and bruised – as the default go-to text across the globe for those crucial times when someone wants to say something without saying anything at all.[5]


For an account of how translating “Lorem Ipsum” into English fits in the general challenge of Latin translation, try this essay by Jaspreet Singh Boparai.

Notes

Notes
1 At this point we sincerely apologise for any procrastination caused by pointing you to some Lorem-inspired versions, such as the Nietzsche and Hipster and pirate and Samuel L. Ipsum generators.
2 Print Design and Production 2.1 (1966) p.38.
3 Advertisers Weekly, Vol. 235 (Autumn, 1967), p.19.
4 This discovery of the Loeb source for Lorem ipsum was made by the godfather of Loremology, Classical scholar Richard McClintock. The most detailed account of the various textual alterations made by the Unknown Typographer can be found here.
5 So what is the Latin for a huffier Fulvia having a benny? Fuluia furibundior se haud bene bene habens?