The strange history of lorem ipsum

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LISA MULLINS: Now, a little typesetting mystery. It concerns placeholder or dummy text. That's the meaningless text that's used in a graphic design of, say, a book or even a website. The words aren't there to be read, they are just there to help the eye get used to what the page will look like when the real text is in place. One example of dummy text is in Latin, and The World's Alex Gallafent has been investigating where that text came from.

LATIN: �Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...�

ALEX GALLAFENT: That's the start of something called Lorem Ipsum. It's probably the most famous example of dummy text in the world.

RICHARD MCCLINTOCK: The purpose is so that people will look at the design rather than the content.

GALLAFENT: Meet Richard McClintock, P.I. His subject? Lorem Ipusm.

MCCLINTOCK: �Cause if you try to design a book and show the design to people when it has real text in it, all they will do is read the text and not look at the design and the layout.

GALLAFENT: Think, if you will, as a typesetter thinks. Your focus is layout and design. Real sentences are your enemy. They draw the eye and all the attention. Your friend is the dummy text � but random words won't do. You need something no one could ever recognize. Not random sequences of letters, however. No. The balance between vowels and consonants and spaces will be all wrong. The failsafe approach is Latin. And the professionals choose Lorem Ipsum.

LATIN: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.

GALLAFENT: For a long time, Lorem Ispum's job was to go unnoticed in the printers' and publishers' toolkit. And because you weren't meant to pay any attention to it, no one did. That is, until Richard McClintock came along. By day, he's Publications Director at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

MCCLINTOCK: The background is that I have a PhD in Latin.

GALLAFENT: A PhD in Latin, and a Masters in Mystery. McClintock needed to know: where did Lorem Ipsum come from? Who was responsible? He read the dummy text, word by word.

MCCLINTOCK: Just as a matter of idle curiosity, probably about 15 years ago now, I was looking at the text and figured, �I wonder if we could look this up by looking in the Latin Dictionary, where they have citations from classical literature.� And I looked at the word that was probably the most unusual word that was in there, which is conseq tatur, which means �to follow after something�. And lo and behold when I looked up �conseq tatur� in the Latin Dictionary, there was a quotation from Cicero De Finibus. It had that portion of it in it.

GALLAFENT: McClintock had his first suspect: Marcus Tullius Cicero, an author residing in Ancient Rome. Cicero's book, De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, turned out to be a work of philosophical ethics, over 2000 years old. McClintock struck gold.

MCCLINTOCK: Lorem is the middle of the word �Dolorum�, meaning pain.

GALLAFENT: So the actual line from Cicero was this:

LATIN: [INDESCERNIBLE]

GALLAFENT: It means, �There is no one who loves pain itself who seeks after it and wants to have it simply because it is pain.� But still there were questions. Why did �dolorum' become �lorem'? And why did other strange things happen to Cicero's words? Things in the wrong place, missing syllables. McClintock knew the old story. Lorem Ipsum was the invention of some printer from centuries ago � everyone agreed on that. But he had other ideas.

MCCLINTOCK: Speculation, not scholarship.

GALLAFENT: In other words, McClintock had a hunch. It led him to the Loeb Classical Library � not a bricks and mortar library, mind, but a published collection of old Latin and Greek texts. Back in the day, the American publisher was MacMillan.

MCCLINTOCK: The 1914 edition of De Finibus in the Loeb Classical Library, there is a page break that starts with �lorem ipsum�. �Do� is on the page before it. And there's a very good chance that it was that little galley of type that somebody took and scrambled physically to come up with dummy type for MacMillan's designers.

GALLAFENT: Mystery solved. McClintock still has to confirm the MacMillan hypothesis � but it's looking good. His work done, Richard McClintock should be on easy street. But Lorem Ipsum won't leave him alone. It's Google's fault. Their online tool, Google Docs, includes instructions on how to produce footnotes. They cite a book as an example: �Richard McClintock, The History of Lorem Ipsum, Hampden-Sydney Press, 2008.� The thing is, that book? It doesn't exist. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent.

MULLINS: If you'd like more stories on languages � classical and modern � check out our podcast, �The World in Words�. It's at theworld.org/language.