Bookshelp header image for page World Wide Words logo

Boustrophedonic

Pronounced /buːstrəʊˈfiːdənɪk/Help with pronunciation

If you watch a farmer ploughing a field, he cuts a furrow one way, then turns his tractor at the headland and ploughs the next furrow in the other direction. To cut all the furrows in one direction would require him to waste every alternate pass across the field. This has been obvious to farmers ever since they began tilling the land many millennia ago.

You can tell from this word, which derives from the ancient Greek boustrophedon, literally “ox-turning”, from bous, an ox and strophos, a turning. The second part also appears in the English catastrophe and apostrophe. Boustrophedonic is a favourite of word-lovers, not only because it’s so unusual, but also because it refers to one method of writing ancient scripts, particularly early Greek. These could be written every which way — up and down, right to left, left to right — but also with alternate lines having reversed word order, so you read from left to right on one line and right to left on the next.

Though it’s usually associated with ancient Greek, boustrophedonic writing has appeared in many places, including the rongo-rongo script of Easter Island, in the Hittite and Etruscan languages, in a few early Latin inscriptions and in runic carvings. The method also appears in some modern applications: microfiche pages are organised this way to minimise the amount of movement needed to follow a sequence of pages; computer printer heads often run boustrophedonically, as do some specialised image scanners. This is another case:

The township plats were to be subdivided into squares of 640 acres numbered from one to 36 starting at the southeast corner and proceeding as the plow follows the ox, in boustrophedonic fashion (ie, left to right, then right to left).

The Making of the American Landscape, by Michael P Conzen, 1990.

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!

OTHER WAYS TO HELP

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 7 Mar. 1998
Last updated 26 Nov. 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-bou1.htm
Last modified: 26 November 2011.