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Motion Designer

Full Time
New York
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Until recently, the prevailing view assumed lorem ipsum was born as a nonsense text. “It's not Latin, though it looks like it, and it actually says nothing,” Before & After magazine answered a curious reader, “Its ‘words’ loosely approximate the frequency with which letters occur in English, which is why at a glance it looks pretty real.”

As Cicero would put it, “Um, not so fast.”

The placeholder text, beginning with the line “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit”, looks like Latin because in its youth, centuries ago, it was Latin.

Richard McClintock, a Latin scholar from Hampden-Sydney College, is credited with discovering the source behind the ubiquitous filler text. In seeing a sample of lorem ipsum, his interest was piqued by consectetur—a genuine, albeit rare, Latin word. Consulting a Latin dictionary led McClintock to a passage from De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (“On the Extremes of Good and Evil”), a first-century B.C. text from the Roman philosopher Cicero.

In particular, the garbled words of lorem ipsum bear an unmistakable resemblance to sections 1.10.32–33 of Cicero's work, with the most notable passage excerpted below:

“Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt.”

A 1914 English translation by Harris Rackham reads:

McClintock's eye for detail certainly helped narrow the whereabouts of lorem ipsum's origin, however, the “how and when” still remain something of a mystery, with competing theories and timelines.

What you’ll be doing

So how did the classical Latin become so incoherent? According to McClintock, a 15th century typesetter likely scrambled part of Cicero's De Finibus in order to provide placeholder text to mockup various fonts for a type specimen book.

  • It's difficult to find examples of lorem ipsum in use before Letraset made it popular as a dummy text in the 1960s,
  • So far he hasn't relocated where he once saw the passage
  • Cicero in the 15th century supports the theory that the filler text has been used for centuries.

Don't bother typing “lorem ipsum” into Google translate. If you already tried, you may have gotten anything from "NATO" to "China", depending on how you capitalized the letters. The bizarre translation was fodder for conspiracy theories, but Google has since updated its “lorem ipsum” translation to, boringly enough, “lorem ipsum”.

One brave soul did take a stab at translating the almost-not-quite-Latin. According to The Guardian, Jaspreet Singh Boparai undertook the challenge with the goal of making the text “precisely as incoherent in English as it is in Latin.

Nick Richardson described the translation “like extreme Mallarmé, or a Burroughsian cut-up, or a paragraph of Finnegans Wake. Bits of it have surprising power: the desperate insistence on loving and pursuing sorrow, for instance, that is cheated out of its justification – an incomplete object that has been either fished for, or wished for.”

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