Lorem ipsum or Quousque tandem?

It is odd how sometimes a few sentences from a book glanced at in a desultory way will stick in the memory for years. Once, as a college student, I happened to pick up an old book on printing type in the guest room of my grandmother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, and read in it for a few minutes. I was suddenly reminded of that book when I stumbled across a website devoted to the dummy text Lorem ipsum. According to the website, “Lorem Ipsum has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since the 1500s.” But remembering the book on printing types, I was sure that this was wrong: the traditional dummy text was Quousque tandem. 

The internet soon turned up a copy of the very book that I had glanced at all those years ago, which turned out to be Daniel Berkeley Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use: a Study in Survivalspublished in 1922, and I soon found the passage that I had remembered:

It was an early custom to display black-letter types in the words of the Pater Noster or sometimes (as in Ratdolt’s fifteenth century specimen sheet) of the Ave Maria. Classical quotations were used to show off roman type. No doubt the familiar opening of Cicero’s oration, “Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina’’ has had (since Caslon’s time) considerable influence on the shape of the capital letter Q; for this sentence became so consecrated to type-specimens that most eighteenth century type-founders felt it necessary to employ it, and in order to outdo each other, they elongated the tails of their Q’s more and more. I do not say that Q’s have long tails because Cicero delivered an oration against Catiline ; but that the tails of some Q’s would not be as long as they are if the oration had begun with some other word !

William Caslon the Elder, who apparently began using Quousque tandem, was born in 1692 or ’93 and lived till 1777, so even the true standard dummy text has not been in use “since the 1500s.” And as to Lorem ipsum, it seems not to have come into use till the 20th century. It is also taken from a work of Cicero’s, but one that has been strangely mangled. According to Wikipedia the opening is derived from a page break in the 1911 Loeb edition of De Finibus, which splits dolorem ipsum into do- | lorem ipsum.


A page break in the Loeb edition of De Finibus, showing the origin of Lorem Ipsum

In a famous passage of A Study in ScarletSherlock Holmes compares the human memory (which he calls the “brain”) with an attic:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.

Now, this is certainly an evocative image, and suddenly remembering things of which one has not thought in years is somehow like finding old furniture in an attic. But at the same time the image seems to me misleading, and Holmes’s conclusion absurd. I prefer the description of memory as an artist in Maurice Baring’s The Puppet Show of Memory:

…for the writer who wishes to recall past memories, the absence of diaries and notebooks has its compensations. Memory, as someone has said, is the greatest of artists. It eliminates the unessential, and chooses with careless skill the sights and the sounds and the episodes that are best worth remembering and recording.

But then not everyone’s memory is as good at selecting as Baring’s was. Some memories are less like Italian Renaissance painters with their concentration on the essential, than like the Dutch painters with their penchant for including insignificant detail.

One thought on “Lorem ipsum or Quousque tandem?

  1. “But at the same time the image seems to me misleading, and Holmes’s conclusion absurd.”
    Ah, but Pater, you have forgotten Holmes’ sequel to this episode;
    “Well,” he said, “I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”
    There is some use “of diaries and notebooks” after all, if only that they allow the memories and thoughts of one artist developing his works to become a common good of others who read them.


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