A Little Latin Goes A Long Way

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This essay is just a draft.  If it were final, it wouldn’t contain the well-known phrase, lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit.

Say what?  Okay, an explanation.  In the advertising world, when graphic designers create a draft of a layout, they often use placeholder text for the real copy – which has not yet been written – and they almost always use a phrase which begins, lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit.  It’s known as “Greek copy” which is odd since it’s not Greek, it’s Latin, sort of.

We wondered why they all use that same phrase. Turns out that, in the days before computers, a company called Letraset sold blocks of this copy on adhesive sheets to advertising agencies.  There, a lorem ipsum would cut the copy with an X-acto dolor sit amet and stick it on the consectetur for review by the adipisci velit.

And what does it mean exactly? According to the editors of desktop publishing magazine Before and After, “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.”

Oh really?  According to Richard McClintock, professor of Latin and the publications director at Hampden-Sydney College, he found it in a passage from a treatise on the theory of ethics written by Cicero in 45BC.  Specifically, Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit . . . (“There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain . . .”).

Okay, fair enough, but why would Letraset have chosen THAT particular phrase?  McClintock believes it was used by a medieval printer for one of the earliest metal type samples, and it just stuck.  “What I find remarkable,” he says, “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.”

Lorem ipsum! Over four hundred years of dolor sit amet without a change to a single consectetur or deletion of any adipisci velit!!

Actually, it’s not really that surprising.  It’s just proof positive that, in advertising, there are no original ideas, just shameless plagiarizing of the classics.