Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lorem Ipsum

Lorem Ipsum is placeholder text that has been used in the printing business since the 1500s.

I use it routinely in my web site design work. There are plenty of times when I need to show what a web page will look like with text in it -- it helps when I need to demonstrate a layout or collect feedback on a new design.

Experience has shown, however, that when I use real copy -- say, a composition of my own or something pulled from an existing publication -- my audience inevitably reads it and wants to comment on the style or modify the punctuation. It doesn't matter if I explain that it is just placeholder text, or if I write DRAFT in big letters across the page: real copy in a demo page is distracting.

Another unsuccessful tactic is to just fill the screen with xxxxoooxxxoooo etc. The chief drawback here is that such text doesn't adequately convey that the space will be filled with words -- it looks like a static shape that does not correspond to any known language outside of computer binary.

What to do?

Centuries ago, a typesetter adapted language from the De finibus bonorum et malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils) of Cicero (106 – 43 BC). A gifted orator and writer, Cicero's writings are regarded as a model of Latin prose. The old linguist's Latin was deemed adequate for the typesetter's task because the dead language roughly corresponds to word size and sentence length for modern western languages -- thus, a reader could get a rough but accurate sense of what a page would look like without being distracted by a chance typesetting error.

The typesetter's adaptation runs like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, leo cras vivamus, velit cras, tellus dolor urna nullam integer pharetra dolor, amet platea egestas nibh, urna id. Eget feugiat nibh dictum magna suspendisse est, penatibus tincidunt venenatis, vitae pharetra leo, porttitor hendrerit rutrum...

This is gibberish of course -- back when the passage was adapted, literate people still read Latin (and memorized large chunks of it to boot). No doubt a 16th century editor worth his salt would have scoffed at any mistake in a citation from the great Roman statesman. The unknown typesetter's solution, then, was to truncate terms and fold in a fair measure of constructions that were nonsense.

The Ciceronian original is here:

Sed ut perspiciatis, unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam eaque ipsa, quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt, explicabo. Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem, quia voluptas sit, aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos, qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt, neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum, quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipiscing velit, sed quia non numquam do eius modi tempora incididunt, ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur? Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit, qui in ea voluptate velit esse, quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum, qui dolorem eum fugiat, quo voluptas nulla pariatur?

Rendered in the vulgar tongue, Cicero's sage advice is as follows:

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

For reasons I've never heard explained, inserting a nonsensical version of Cicero's Latin into a page layout is known as "Greeking."

A little nonsense now and then
Is cherished by the wisest men.

- W. Wonka

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