“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.” And so begins many a working day for me. Anyone who has ever looked at any sort of printed or web template will recognise “lorem ipsum”, the placeholder text that designers use until the real copy is ready.

Copywriters like me spend a lot of time looking at chunks of lorem ipsum. Often, I end up counting it, to give me a better idea of how many words I need to write to fill the space. Beyond the first few words, the rest of the text often varies, depending on what size space needs to be populated. So of course, because I stare at it so much, I started to wonder about it, and because I started to wonder about it, I started to read about it – and for a word nerd like me, that made for a very jolly research session.

I had always assumed it was a made-up sort of Latin, and my own tenuous grasp of the language isn’t good enough to actually translate it. It is actually pretty much a nonsense piece, but it is based on Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum – “On the ends of good and evil”. For more about the language itself, read Alison Flood’s piece in The Guardian, who like me, finds it “weirdly mesmerising”. It’s thought to have been the go-to typesetters’ text since the 1500s. I’m not entirely sure why the first guy to use it chose to use scrambled Roman philosophy to fill the gaps, but hey, it works.

Why do we still use it? Habit or tradition, maybe. But the main reason is that this dummy copy manages to be both readable and unreadable at the same time. Because it looks like “real” writing, the viewer looking at the proofs gets a real sense of what the publication or website will look like when it’s populated with text. And because to most of us (Latin scholars aside) it’s a load of burble, we’re not distracted by the words and focus instead on the design.

There are various lorem ipsum generators online, where you can type in your sentence/paragraph/page length and a stream of gibberish is produced to fit. Naturally this has led to silly versions. Probably the most fun generator is Samuel L Ipsum (warning: NSFW).

As the copywriter, I often come in towards the end of a project when the design has been finalised; and I have to say, I really prefer it when lorem ipsum is used as the placeholder text, as it’s as close to a blank space that you can get, without it actually being blank. Chunks of copy from the previous website or a hundred repetitions of “Content Needed Here” don’t actually work as well  – they just create “noise” which can be hard to ignore.

So that was today’s distraction. I shall now return to populating a website with what I hope is more meaningful text – although arguably, less profound than the (albeit jumbled) philosophy of good and evil.