• boustrophedon •
Pronunciation: bus-trê-fee-dên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: The back-and-forth style of writing used by the Hittites, Greeks, and others, in which the lines are written alternately from left to right then right to left. Early impact-type computer printers often had boustrophedonic heads that moved left to right, then right to left to increase 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 peculiar word. The metaphor does not quite work, but those who know this word can make the connection. The adverb is boustrophedonically "in a back and forth pattern".
In Play: Systematic searches often follow a boustrophedon: "We carried out a very careful boustrophedonic search of the wooded area and found nothing." Heating elements and cooling coils in refrigerators are often boustrophedonic, and boustrophedonic ribbon candy is not at all rare.
Word History: This funny word comes from Greek boustrophedon "turning like an ox (while plowing)", a compound containing bous "ox" + strophe "a turning". Bous originated in the Proto-Indo-European word gwou- "cow, bull, ox", which reached English as cow, Hindi as gaya "cow" (Sanskrit gauh), and shows up in Russian govyadina "beef". We also find the Greek bous tucked into boubalos "buffalo", an ancestor of English buffalo. Strophe comes from the Greek verb strephein "to turn" and is a relative of English strap and Latin stroppus "twisted cord."