“Quod erat demonstrandum”, as Cicero used to say

Lorem ipsum has been the industry’s standard text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown typesetter assembled assorted words in Latin and, ipso facto, made a specimen book.

Lorem ipsum has survived five centuries and even made the leap into digital typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem ipsum passages and more recently with desktop publishing software, which often contains dummy text for page-makers.

It seems that the reader is easily distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using “Content here, content here”, making it look like genuine text. Many desktop publishing packages and web page editors now use Lorem ipsum as their default model text, and a search for Lorem ipsum will reveal many web sites with (semi-) humorous variations on the text.

Lorem ipsum is essentially meaningless and has its roots in a piece of classical Latin literature from 45 BC, making it over 2,000 years old. Richard McClintock, a Latin professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, seized on one of the more obscure Latin words, consectetur, and going through citations of the word in classical literature, discovered the undoubted source. Lorem ipsum comes from sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of De finibus bonorum et malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil) by Cicero.

CiceroMarcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) is well known to classical scholars. He was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, who is widely considered one of ancient Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. His influence on the Latin language was such that the later history of prose in not only Latin but European languages up to the 19th century was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style. Cicero introduced the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy and created a philosophical vocabulary that placed him in the front rank of linguists, translators, and philosophers.

Mr-ChipsLatin, in which Mr. Chips took such delight, is no longer taught in schools in the way it used to be, so the mnemonics and puns that teachers invented to make it memorable have faded away. One of the best known was noted by James Hilton in his novella Good-Bye, Mr. Chips (1934):

“Whenever his Roman History forms came to deal with the Lex Canuleia, the law that permitted patricians to marry plebeians, Chips used to add: ‘So that, you see, if Miss Plebs wanted Mr. Patrician to marry her, and if he said she couldn’t, she probably replied: “Oh, yes, you can, you liar!”’ Roars of laughter.”

Apparently, Cicero was quite a wit himself, although one suspects his jokes get lost in translation. He probably never asked, “Quantum materiae materietur marmota monax si marmota monax materiam possit materiari?” But that’s because there were no woodchucks in the Alban Hills.


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