What Does "Lorem Ipsum" Mean?

Wednesday, May 313 min read

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. This Latin-esque phrase might look familiar, but it has no translation and actually means nothing at all. So how and why did it become so ubiquitous?

Lorem ipsum is the traditional placeholder or "dummy" text used in typesetting and graphic design for previewing layouts. It’s a passage of scrambled Latin text; the intended purpose is to draw the brain away from reading the text itself, instead calling focus to the design of the layout. In fact, the use of classical-language placeholder text in web design is specifically called "greeking," from the expression, "It’s all Greek to me." In other words, it’s incomprehensible. Here’s the text of a standard Lorem ipsum passage (when longer text is needed, it just repeats again):

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.

A Brief History of Lorem Ipsum

Using Latin text as a printing placeholder began long before web design. As early as the 1500s, printers would use sections of classical works to make type-specimen books to demonstrate different fonts. Latin was chosen for this task because it was considered a lingua franca (common tongue) across Europe — far from the dead language it is today.

The exact origination of the scrambled Lorem ipsum text is unknown, but it gained widespread use in the 1960s when the typeface manufacturing company Letraset chose the passage for preprinted transfer sheets for use in the advertising industry. These sheets allowed designers and typesetters to easily transfer the text in various fonts, sizes, and formats for advertisement prototypes.

Fast-forward to the 1980s and the dawn of the personal computer. The Aldus Corporation used Lorem ipsum as part of its word-processing software before Microsoft adopted it for its Word program, and it took off from there. Even today, most online content-management platforms such as Wordpress or Squarespace use the Lorem ipsum passage for preview text.

But Where Did It Come From, Really?

It would seem that Lorem ipsum stumbled into fame (or at least universal graphic design usage) a bit haphazardly. Where did this mish-mash of Latin copy actually come from? Until the 1990s, it was thought to be a jumble of random words, but there are clues to the mystery. Latin scholar Professor Richard McClintock traced the text to a passage from De finibus bonorum et malorum ("On the Ends of Good and Evil"), an ethical treatise written by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, circa 45 BCE. McClintock was able to track the Lorem ipsum text by searching Latin texts for the word consectetur, which he ultimately found in the 1914 Loeb Classical Library edition of the Cicero text.

This version reads as follows, but the word dolorem is split between a page break (creating the word Lorem), and the rest of the text was scrambled to make the Lorem ipsum dummy text.

Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem.

While the Lorem ipsum source has been found, the newest iteration of placeholder text is "copy pasta" — blocks of text that appear to have been copied and pasted across social media and online forums. Sometimes these serve the same purpose as Lorem ipsum, giving the brain something to gloss over. In its most benign form, copy pasta is a kind of internet joke form of the game “Telephone,”  but versions of copy pasta have also appeared in misinformation campaigns. The nonsense text is just that — nonsense.

Featured image credit: Ivan Martynov/ iStock

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