Five-Dollar Words For Programmers, Part Four: Boustrophedonic


Here’s an almost useless but thoroughly delightful five-dollar word. English of course is read left-to-right. Hebrew and Arabic are read right-to-left. A text is boustrophedonic if it reads left-to-right and right-to-left, alternating.

It’s from the Greek βουστροφηδόν meaning “as the ox turns”;  you’d plow a field with an ox right to left and then left to right, obviously.

There are a number of ancient languages which were written boustrophedonically, which I’m sure has given members of the Unicode committee many sleepless nights. The example here is a rare early Latin text written boustrophedonically.

What’s the relevance to computer people not on the Unicode committee, given that odds are slim to none that Word will ever support boustrophedonic editing? That’s how most modern dot-matrix and inkjet printers print. The head goes left-to-right, then prints the image “backwards” right-to-left, and so on.

I discovered this word several years ago when grepping through the Scrabble Tournament Word List post-game to see if HEDONIC was in fact a legal bingo, or if I had played a phony. (It is legal.) But I had partial text matching on, so I hit BOUSTROPHEDONIC first and was intrigued, so I looked it up.

At fifteen letters long, it would run the entire width or height of the board. If OUST, HE and ON were all on the board already in the right place along an edge, you could play the remaining seven letters, get the triple-triple-triple word score plus the bingo bonus, and score 725 points. That would almost double the world record for highest scoring play (CAZIQUES, 392 points).

This seems unlikely, but you never know. Might come in handy.