Whiplash in the library.

Dear Word Detective: I came across the word “boustrephedon” years ago in an Inspector Morse mystery. The author of that series, Colin Dexter, imbued Morse with the same passion for crossword puzzles and obscure words that he enjoyed, and could be counted on to insert an interesting or little-used term into each new book. I can safely say I have only seen this word in print two or three times in the 15-or-so years since I first read that book. I have the definition, can you supply some background? — Tisa Philbin.

bou08.pngGood question, and I’m so glad someone finally asked about “boustrephedon,” one of my favorite prehistoric mammals. The “boustrephedon,” which flourished during the Late Devouring Period, resembled a mastodon in many respects, but lacked the mastodon’s legendary social finesse and was shunned by other animals of the period. The roots of the boustrephedon’s name gives a clue to the problem. The Middle English word “bouse” meant “to swill alcohol, to drink heavily” (giving us the modern English “booze”), and you can guess the rest. Long story short, the sight of a four-ton hairy elephant reeling drunkenly through the primordial swamps apparently drove several other species of the day to voluntary extinction.

OK, none of that is true (except the derivation of “booze”). But “boustrephedon” is a seriously cool word. “Boustrephedon” is the writing or printing of alternate lines of text in opposite directions — left to right, then right to left, and so on down the page, as opposed to the standard left to right used in English or the right to left used in Hebrew, for instance. Boustrephedon is a very old style of writing found in the inscriptions and texts of many ancient cultures around the world.

“Boustrephedon” is a Greek word, appropriately so, since early Greek texts were written in this style. “Bou” means “cow or ox,” and “strophe” is “the act of turning,” making “boustrephedon” an adverb meaning “turning like an ox in plowing.” Fields today are still plowed, albeit usually with tractors, in such a back-and-forth fashion, but “boustrephedon” today is primarily used in a looser sense in technical contexts. Some computer printers, for instance, are said to print “boustrephedonically,” but the words, though put to paper right to left on every other line, are still spelled in the standard left to right form. And if you live in a grid-based neighborhood (such as midtown Manhattan), your mail carrier almost certainly executes his or her route in a “boustrephedonic” pattern.

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