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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 get some idea of how ancient the idea is 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.

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Page created 07 Mar 1998; Last updated 26 Nov 2011