Placeholder text and pangrams

When you need to see how a typeface works you use dummy copy. But there’s more to life than lorem ipsum, as pangrams can be fun, too.

If you need to fill a text box with words but you don’t have final approved copy or you just want to see how different type settings look, what do you do? Lorum ipsum of course; fill the box with meaningless placeholder text and apply your type styling to that. This is a time-honoured tradition, as is the text that is normally used: “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,” and so on. The reason this is done is to avoid using text that might be actually readable and distract someone from evaluating the layout itself. This text doesn’t, strictly speaking, mean anything, or not much at least. It first appeared in a type specimen book in the 16th century, but the best-known beginning part is edited down from an original passage written in 45 BC by Cicero, a Roman philosopher and statesman. However, although it looks like Latin it is largely cod-Latin, with many chopped-up and rebuilt ‘words’. What makes it particularly useful is that these match typical English language word lengths, so the end result has the same balance that normal real text would. This means that it shows the ‘colour’ of the selected typeface; the way it looks when set as paragraphs.

Years ago many designers would stash a file of lorem ipsum text ready for use, but these days you can get as much as you like from sites such as www.lipsum.com. Even these sites are becoming redundant; InDesign has a built-in dummy text generator (Type > Fill with Placeholder Text), as does QuarkXPress (Utilities > Jabber). These don’t deliver the classic lorem ipsum, but they do churn out as much fake Latin text as you need, varying it each time.

What’s often forgotten about the original Lorem Ipsum text is that it a form of pangram, and possibly the very first ever consciously made. A pangram is a string of text that uses every letter of the alphabet. True, Latin only uses 23 letters (there’s no J, V or W), and this isn’t exactly a compact example. But it is designed specifically to show how (almost) all the different characters behave in runs of typeset text.

Pangram purists – yes, they do exist – will argue that this isn’t actually a real pangram. The idea of these things is, as well as using every letter, that they are made with real words, even if they might be technically rather obscure. A pangram is made with a different goal in mind; showing every letter in as short a sentence as possible, as well as making it more interesting when demonstrating the full alphabet in a particular typeface.

The best-known pangram must be the old ‘quick brown fox’ line, which first appeard in Baden-Powell’s 1908 publication Scouting for Boys as an exercise for practising signalling. Since then it has become loved and used by traditional typing teachers everywhere. (Mind you, they still double-space between sentences, so what do they know?)

If you’d rather try something a little less common there are countless alternatives to choose from, as a minute’s searching in Google will show. Most are more than a little strange, thanks to creative efforts at making them as short as possible. “Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz” is a surreal case in point. On the other hand, there’s a clear journalistic quality to “the public was amazed to view the quickness and dexterity of the juggler,” and I particularly like the nod to tradition of “whenever the black fox jumped the squirrel gazed suspiciously.”

Trimming a pangram down to just the 26 letters of the alphabet is a particularly tough exercise, and such ‘perfect pangrams’ (which are effectively anagrams of the alphabet) are hardly proper sentences. You might be able to drag a smidgen of sense from “blowzy night-frumps vex’d Jack Q”, but the Welsh-derived “cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz” really pushes things to the limit. Caveat lector.

Obviously, pangrams aren’t limited to our own language. Other languages have different numbers of alphabetic characters to contend with; Spanish has 29 if you include both ñ and ‘ch’, Italian has just 21, but Hindi has 58 to juggle. Some non-English pangram examples? The French “whisky vert: jugez cinq fox d’aplomb” is pleasingly compact, and so, surprisingly, is the German “zwei boxkämpfer jagen Eva quer durch Sylt”. The Dutch “sexy qua lijf, doch bang voor het zwempak” isn’t quite what you might think if you don’t speak the language. Finally, coming full circle, there’s “Gaza frequens Libycos duxit Karthagos tripumphos,” which is of course Latin. But why stop here? You’ll find more pangrams in more languages – from Arabic to Ukranian, with translations – than you ever thought possible at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pangrams.

Having said that, pangram creation isn’t a totally global phenomenon. Ideographic languages such as Chinese and Korean have many thousands of word-characters. The Chinese poem ‘Thousand Character Classic’ uses exactly 1000 unique characters (written in 250 phrases of four characters each), but that’s less than 1/40th of the complete range. True pangrams there would be unfeasibly long. On the other hand the Chinese language offers more graphical games, exercises aimed more at calligraphy than the Western ideas of typography and typesetting. Yong, the symbol for ‘permanence’ or ‘forever’, uses every basic stroke required to write Chinese characters, and it uses them just once. The construction of this symbol is called the Eight Principles of Yong, and practising it is said to ensure beauty in a calligrapher’s writing. So, in a sense, it is the rough equivalent of a typist’s Quick Brown Fox.

If anyone questions your sanity as you dig online for pangrams and perhaps try reading them out to your colleagues, here’s your justification. As well as being a source of curious diversion and brief amusement, pangrams are very useful when testing the appearance of different typefaces. Lorem ipsum is useful for body text simulation and mocking up complete paragraphs, but pangrams help with test settings of headlines and captions. One of my firm pangram favourites isn’t particularly short by any stretch of the imagination, but it has a certain innate truth that lifts it above mere linguistic exercise. “An inspired calligrapher can create pages of beauty using stick ink, quill, brush, pick-axe, buzz saw, or even strawberry jam.” Of course nothing’s perfect; substituting ‘designer’ for ‘calligrapher’ trims off four characters and is more immediately relevant to most of us. Just don’t substitute this for a bit of regular gibberish when presenting mockups to a client; they might see it as professional arrogance rather than a bit of type-based fun.

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