The pain of lorem ipsum

I’ve created several quizes for different sets of people during this lockdown season and I one of the questions was always the same:

If the Latin word ipsum in the well-known editorial gimmick lorem ipsum means ‘himself/itself’, what does lorem mean? Latin dictionary is allowed, but reference to Google & Co is not.

Everyone who’s ever used a word processor or electronic text editor has come across lorem ipsum and probably knows that it is: a placeholder text which sounds like Latin but is generally assumed to be gibberish.

When I got my first PC in 1995, I made the acquaintance of the quick brown fox and of the lazy dog. For those who still remember, this was Microsoft’s way of illustrating the fonts from Windows 3.11 to 95 (at least) using a pangram, namely a sentence containing all the letters of the English alphabet. Between the fox and the dog, all had been said, leapt and written.

Lorem ipsum is a different beast. It is an ancient and deformed monster whose history stretches all the way back to Cicero and ancient Rome.

To understand how ancient it is one has to look at its deformity. Lorem ipsum is a creature of printed culture. It couldn’t have emerged in the digital age. And that’s why it’s deformed. You won’t find the word lorem in a Latin dictionary. But you will find dolorem, the accusative form of the noun dolor, meaning pain.

Dolorem ipsum, pain itself.

It must have been painful for lorem ipsum to keep going in this severed form.

In 1994, an American Latinist Richard McClintock broke the news that the two words are to be found in Cicero’s philosophical treatise known as ‘On the Ends of Good and Evil’:

Nor is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself (dolorem ipsum), because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances emerge in which effort and pain can provide him with some great pleasure.

What had seemed gibberish was revealed to have royal pedigree.

In one of the modern printed editions of this text, the word dolorem was split at the end of the line on the left-hand page, while the first word on the right-hand began with ‘lorem ipsum’. We never look back, even when it doesn’t make sense.

Corrupted yet famous.

In the 1960s, the British typeface company Letraset started using the lorem ipsum passage in their advertising campaigns, although it’s not clear who picked the guilty edition and why. From one typeface company to another, the faux Latin passage became the standard placeholder text in desktop publishing.

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