Daily Archives: April 10, 2010


The first time I recall encountering this word – or, rather, its present participle, soughing – was actually when I was in graduate school. The drama department at Tufts University (that’s where I was) was performing Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit, in the translation by Patrick Bowles. (I was playing one of the two blind eunuchs. It was not my moment of greatest glory on the Tufts stage – that was probably when I played Flan in Six Degrees of Separation.) There is a line in it, “Cool wood, and the wind in the boughs, soughing like the sea-surge.”

Which tells you well enough what soughing means, without your having to rough it out or tough it out yourself. What it doesn’t tell you is how you pronounce sough. You may guess, from the assonance evinced by the line as a whole, that it rhymes with bough, and that may be what Bowles had in mind. But Heather, the assistant director (the director was a native of Shanghai and left the English tips to Heather, an American grad student), told the actor to pronounce it like soft minus the t – i.e., soughing was to be “soffing”.

It happens that Heather’s is not one of the two pronunciations given in the OED, the Random House, Merriam-Webster, or the American Heritage Dictionary. All agree that the two possible pronunciations rhyme with how and stuff (or with bough and tough, if you will). The OED allows a third for Scots speakers, [sux] – where [u] is the vowel in loop and [x] is the same voiceless velar fricative you hear in loch (so it’s not a respelling of sucks).

The Scots pronunciation is actually the one least changed over the ages. The source of this word is Old English swogan, but the g is really a yogh and would thus be a velar fricative (though perhaps voiced). But velar fricatives have been lost in most kinds of English for centuries, and they have been replaced by a variety of approximations: [f], [w], [i], [ə], nothing at all. Consider that almost anywhere you see a gh there was originally a velar fricative: cough, rough, laugh; caught, bough, though, through; height, weight… The loss of this phoneme, combined with various caprices of vowel shift, has done much to loosen the connection between English spelling and pronunciation.

This word, for its part, was also in danger of being lost, at least south of Scotland. But it proved useful to the literary muse in the 19th century and so had a bit of a revival, and its persistence in the works of Wordsworth, Scott, Charlotte Brontë, Thoreau, and their ilk has given it a certain lasting presence. It shows up both as verb and as noun: “its branches soughing with the four winds” (Thoreau, The Maine Woods); “That evening calm betrayed alike the tinkle of the nearest streams, the sough of the most remote” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre). It can also refer to sighing or even to whining.

You may also see another word sough, unrelated, used to refer to a bog, a swamp, a gutter, a sewer, or a slough. Naturally, since it can refer to a watery slough, it’s pronounced to rhyme with the desquamation slough rather than the watery slough. What did you expect?

But, now, you tell me what sound wind in the boughs and the sea-surge make. Go dig through your 1970s LPs for the Environments series released by (fittingly) Atlantic in the 1970s, and play the first side of the first one, titled The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore (did I say 1970s!), 30 minutes of waves (recorded at Brighton Beach but significantly adjusted on an IBM 360) – or pick up any of the many relaxation CDs more recently made inspired by them (go to a spa and get a massage; odds are you’ll get rubbed to the sound of harp, pipes, or piano with waves in the background – here, listen to this, it makes me smell sandalwood already). Or – I know it’s out of fashion, and a trifle uncool, but I can’t help it, I’m a romantic fool – go to your nearest beach to watch the sun go down. (Don’t have a beach? Go find a slough, and lean close to see if you can hear a sough in the sough.) Listen to the waves: what do you hear? Sough, sough, sough… which sough? But then listen to the wind in the trees (that’s Environments 5, side 2, by the way), or perhaps the breeze in the heather, and again you’ll hear sough, sough, sough… but which sough? Is it the same one as the waves? And does either of them sound more like Heather’s version than the dictionary versions?

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting today’s word.

lorem ipsum

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Oops… was that all Greek to you?

No, no, you might say, that sure looks like Latin. And indeed it does. But it’s still what’s often referred to as greeking – it’s incomprehensible dummy text. It’s even incomprehensible in Latin. If it looked like English, it would go something like this:

Sires to obtain pain of itself, it is pain, but boccasing circum stanccur in which toil and pain can him some grea. To take a trivia example, which of un ever under takeslab ise, except to obtain sowe advantage from? Dut wh has any iright pain find fault man who choos esto enjoy a pleasurences voids a pain tha produces no resultant? Demoraliz by the charms of pleasu of the moent, so blindhat the cann forese nd trouble tha.

So OK, so what? Well, that bit of quasi-Latin up there is known as lorem ipsum, after its first two words, and it’s far and away the best-known dummy text in the world. Dummy text? Filler text. When you’re doing layout, and you don’t have the text yet, or you just want to display a layout design without people getting distracted by the text.

And it certainly seems like mumbo-jumbo, doesn’t it? Especially since Latin is the archetypal source for mumbo-jumbo in English. All manner of bogus incantations and assorted hocus-pocus is based on, or made to look like, Latin. Hocus-pocus, for instance. (Mumbo-jumbo, on the other hand, is based on a word from Mandinka, a West African language. There are always exceptions.) Anyone who’s read Harry Potter books – or any of quite a few other books in related genres – will recognize the pattern. And since very few people can understand Latin these days, Latin text – or, even better, garbled Latin – makes a very agreeable bit of filler to make your eyes glide right over it.

The term itself, lorem ipsum, rolls nicely off the tongue. The first word starts with two liquids and always made me think of it as meaning “when” because of its resemblance to French lors. The second word is real Latin that you might have seen elsewhere, perhaps in slightly different form – ipso facto, for one. On the other hand, it might seem like gypsum, which is fair enough since this text is a sort of literary drywall. Both words end in that nice hum of an m, with its soft weight.

This text had been in use for quite some time without anyone really wondering if it was based on something specific when, about a decade and a half ago, Richard McClintock, of Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia, did wonder. Since his expertise was Latin, he could tell at a glance what text was real words, and he zeroed in on the word consectetur, third-person singular present subjunctive passive of a verb meaning “pursue”, because it’s uncommon. Hey presto, he very quickly found a citation of it in Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum, “On the ends of good and evil.” Here’s the passage from which it is taken:

Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur? Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem eum fugiat quo voluptas nulla pariatur? At vero eos et accusamus et iusto odio dignissimos ducimus qui blanditiis praesentium voluptatum deleniti atque corrupti quos dolores et quas molestias excepturi sint occaecati cupiditate non provident, similique sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollitia animi, id est laborum et dolorum fuga. Et harum quidem rerum facilis est et expedita distinctio.

And here’s the 1914 English translation by Rackham:

Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure? On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain.

Now, about that “for quite some time,” by the way. You will find it said in many places that it started being used in the 1500s. I haven’t yet found any actual citation, just a repeated assertion that someone said once and everyone else is repeating (just like the text itself). What is known is that its popularity comes from its having been distributed by Letraset in the 1960s in sheets that could be cut out and pasted in. McClintock (I learn from www.pri.org/theworld/) happens to have noticed that in the 1914 Macmillan edition of Cicero’s text, there is a page break right in the middle of dolorem, so that a page starts with lorem ipsum (What kind of a typesetter puts a page break in the middle of a word like that! But there it is). It’s his hypothesis that that is, in fact, the version of the text that the lorem ipsum was based on. This makes me speculate that, rather than a printer grabbing bunches of letters from a page of set type, dropping some, adding others, and so on, this may have been a deliberately imperfect typewriter transcription of a random page.

All of this doesn’t address one important fact about lorem ipsum: as a placeholder for English, it’s kind of imperfect. It doesn’t accurately represent English word length and distribution. If you need 500 words of placeholder text, 500 words of lorem ipsum just won’t give you an accurate expectation, and it doesn’t really look like English or break up lines like English. Several years ago, I decided to make some dummy text based on English. I took the beginning of a well-known novel by a 20th-century American author and ran a simple replacement algorithm on it: one sequence of vowels, another of different length of consonants, looping through the vowels and consonants repeatedly in their different phase lengths, a kind of typological minimal music. And I put numbers every 50 words so it could be taken in whatever needed quantity. Here are the first 101 words:

“Spe al Rist Sopl?” Lru setsp ler astisp, olr Ustes Pelrast siopl rus tespelraist spo lur’s tesp. Lre sat sip lour es tespla, ristous eplrestasp. Lir stos plu restes pal ir sto usp el rse tspail, rostus spelrs teaspl fis otus, epl rse atis pouler stseaplr is Otsue Pelrast, 50 siplors uts plers – et as pli roustees pal rios utspelres ta spi louresets apiolurest seplar sit. “Spo lur see tas plir?” ostus Eplea Ristosp, lur seets pilro. Stu sep learis otuespl rse tasi op lru seetsap; i lorsu et spelar stisp lorust sep lersatsip lro sutes pelras it spo 100 lru.

You can get the whole 500 words of it at www.harbeck.ca/James/texttest.html. It’s not perfect; I think I might do up another version. But it’s better for the purpose than lorem ipsum.

And yet, I must acknowledge the cultural hold of faux Latin, not to mention the incredible entrenchment of the lorem ipsum text. So why would I bother? Running those replacements is something I have to do by hand; it’s rather tedious. Does anyone care? Well, yes: I do – I also do layout, and I have on occasion needed truly useful placeholder text. I don’t do it because it’s tedious and laborious (though the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch might disagree with Cicero about choosing pain for pain’s sake); I do it because the tediousness and labour of it produce something that does me some good. And if that makes me happy, and doesn’t harm anyone, who has any right to find fault with it?