January 2, 2005
• boustrophedon •
Pronunciation: bus-trê-fee-dên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: The style of an ancient method of writing used by the Hittites, Greeks, and others in which the lines are written alternately from left to right, then back right to left. Some typesetting software operates by boustrophedon to save time. Just before the line printer was invented, some early computer output printers had boustrophedonic heads that moved left to right, then right to left, again, for speed.
Notes: In the 2000 US federal elections, the (in)famous butterfly ballots used in Florida, that listed candidates on facing pages, were called by some boustrophedonic, the adjective for this really good word. The metaphor does not quite work but those who know today's word would make the connection. The adverb is boustrophedonically "in a back and forth pattern."
In Play: The adjective from today's word is probably used most widely, "We carried out a very careful boustrophedonic search and found nothing." Systematic searches often follow a boustrophedon. As today's image shows, heating elements and cooling coils are often boustrophedonic, and boustrophedonic ribbon candy is not at all rare.
Word History: From Greek boustrophedon "turning like an ox (while plowing)," a compound containing bous "ox" + strophe "a turning." The Proto-Indo-European root gwou- "cow, bull, ox" came down to English as cow, to Hindi as gaya (Sanskrit gauh), and shows up in Russian govyadina "beef." In Greek it converted to bous, which we also find in boubalos "buffalo." Strophe comes from the Greek verb strephein "to turn" and is a relative of English strap from Latin stroppus "twisted cord." (Today's word was suggested by Chris Scholl, who once delivered the mail here in Lewisburg boustrophedonically.)
If someone a tad more technically literate than I would consent to tell me how to import Dr Goodword's diagram, which explicitly and concisely elucidates the meaning of this word in a manner beyond the capacity of a purely verbal description, I shall do my best to edit my posting so as to include it. In any event, if the good doctor doesn't object, I think this ancient Greek term should be dedicated to astrokatastro, even though it was not he who suggested it....