It's all Greek to Me

We have all seen those "Lorem ipsum..." placeholder text passages. We may have also heard the term "Greeking" as a description of text that is not really meaningful text... But what does a Latin text have to do with the Greek language? Or does it?

The "lorem ipsum" text is loosely based on an old Cicero text - written in Latin, obviously.

The term "Greeking" - according to Wikipedia - is based on a reference to the phrase "Greek to me", meaning something that one cannot understand, so that it might as well be in a foreign language. That may make sense, but I'm sure Greeks will think differently.

Now, that we have cleared that up, how come these two are used together and what is their purpose?

When I learned manual typesetting back in the day, we used wooden letter cases containing thousands of lead type (a pretty poisonous task, looking back). And when we were done, we had to empty our letters back into the case. As students we did not pay the necessary attention to put the letters back into the proper pigeon holes. Over time, the letter cases became chaotic and unusable for real typesetting.

But they were good for training. So we practiced "imposition" - the arrangement of text in columns, around images, in lists and so on. Any character would do. And I learned to call the text that we created "greek".

When Desktop Publishing became something anyone thought they could do, the programs needed sample text in user guides and help files. And someone at Adobe stumbled across the Cicero text.

Later, it also started being used as placeholder for text in form fields and templates, and at least in one case it accidentally made the news.

From a translation/localization perspective I have a problem with the text. For one, even if it is called Greek and really is Latin, it is also simple ASCII text. It means that not one special character is included, and quite certainly not a single Greek character.

That doesn't help if you want to illustrate non-European text. How about Chinese? Or bi-directional text like Hebrew or Arabic? The text doesn't need to make sense, but it should show how text might flow, how line breaks happen, how a right-to-left reading order changes your layout. You may want to illustrate that your file can handle Arabic text flow, or double-byte, or simply actual Ελληνικά text.

Maybe someone reading this will come up with a lorem ipsum for actual Greek characters.

Finally, a tip for creating your own placeholder text in MS Word without having to type it: enter the following =lorem() in an empty paragraph and hit enter. You can get fancy and modify the parameters to change the number of paragraphs and the number of lines per paragraph, for example =lorem(2,5) will give you two paragraphs with 5 lines each. Enjoy!

Mister B.