Five-Dollar Words For Programmers, Part Four: Boustrophedonic

Five-Dollar Words For Programmers, Part Four: Boustrophedonic

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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.

  • That is very, very interesting! I

    hcihw llet dluoc redaer a woh rednow

    way to read a random line of text without

    .ti erofeb emac senil ynam woh gniwonk

    I suppose for palindromes, it would not

                                 .hcum rettam yllaer

  • Wow, this is actually useful.  I help design a machine that applies a laser in a side to side motion.  We use the term "serpentine", but I'll try throwing around "boustrophedonic" instead and see what happens :)

  • I think laser printers should work the same way, since they just go back and forth on the drum with a laser.  Then again, you'd think CRT monitors would work that way too, but a friend who used to program for the Amiga told me that they don't, and the extra time between writing each line could be used for creative processor operations, like swapping out the font map for each line (don't ask... he had crazy ideas...).

    Great post!

  • >  a friend who used to program for the Amiga told me that they don't, and the extra time between writing each line could be used for creative processor operations, like swapping out the font map for each line (don't ask... he had crazy ideas...).

    That's not just Amigas. You could some fancy tricks that way on PCs of old, too; for example, it was possible to display up to 64 distinct colors on the screen at the same time on a 16-color EGA card by dynamically reprogramming the palette during horizontal blanking intervals (of course, that still meant no more than 16 colors per single line...)

  • This is off the top of my head so I can be completely wrong but if I remember correctly, the last time I came across that word was 20 years ago when I read the excellent Godel, Escher, Bach from Douglas R. Hofstadter. I believe he was referring to the writing of the Eastern Island!

    And yes, you can display 16 million colors on an Ataris ST that is designed to only display 16 colors at a time by playing tricks with the non boustrophedonic video signal (you could do it too if it was boustrophedonic I suppose) .

  • As for the CRTs, there is a very simple reason they aren't bous... whatever that crazy word was.

    Their input is analog, so a small delay or run-ahead is quite possible. In the current scheme, this leads simply to a small, probably indistinguishable, horizontal shift.

    But if the electron ray mirrored on the edge, the same delay would blur the image quite noticeably.

  • @Kevin - Actually, if you look at the table in the image, it is pretty it seems that the characters are mirrored --interestingly enough, such as 'V' which in the English alphabet would look the same read forward our backward, the 'V' that shows up in the tablets differs by having one of its sides lean the opposite direction.  (The 'E' also shows a similar mirroring in the tilt of the lettering.)

    Know I wonder if this technique led to some very adept speed-reading and writing!

    Indeed, some boustrophedonic writing is mirror-imaged in the letters, indicating that the letters themselves were perceived as being "read" in a particular direction. Pretty weird! -- Eric

  • I suppose in ancient times, such manner of writing would be good for something like cuneiform tablets, or stone stellae, set up in some underground temple with little or no light. It's easy to read by touch, without sight: you just locate, say, the top left corner of the slab, then start moving your fingers right to the end, then down one line, then left, back to the other end, and so on, until you locate the fragment you're interested in (maybe, some spell to bring back the dead! ;-))

    Nowadays, boustrophedonic writing could have been used in the Braille system for the blind people, but I do not thing that it is (here is the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braille#Braille_transcription ).

  • I once received a boustrophedonic letter*, it was written in English and Hebrew alternately, the person writing the letter said it was to save my moving my eyes but obviously the opposite happened, after finishing one line my eyes would automatically go to the beginning of the next line only to find that it was on the wrong end.

    I seem to remember having a headache after finishing the letter.

    * Actual letter this was in the mid ninetees when email was less common.

  • Eric, if you have not already read this book, you should:

    http://www.amazon.com/Alpha-Omega-Times-Greek-Alphabet/dp/1567921019

    I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

  • Denis: I suspect there wasn't the modern expection of paragraphs of neatly lined text, so changing angle/direction was perfectly acceptable, and having to "carriage-return" when painting or inscribing would be inconvenient.  The ambiguity is why you see various Greek letters reversed in inscriptions, and explains why Greek letters are rotated from Phoenician.

    Cuneiform normally was normally top-to-bottom, but was also usually limited to small pieces of clay.  My favourite (and the earliest) is Egyptian hieroglyphs, where the symbols point in the direction they're written, but I don't think there's a word for that.

  • I came across this word many years ago when I read the book Expert C Programming by Peter van der Linden (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Expert-Programming-Peter-van-Linden/dp/0131774298/ref=cm_lmf_tit_3_rsrrrr0). In it he points out that one deciphers a variable declaration in C boustrophedonically from the middle. He even has a worked example to illustrate it. I have always remembered the word and it has even helped me decipher some declarations.

  • I came across this word many years ago when I read the book Expert C Programming by Peter van der Linden (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Expert-Programming-Peter-van-Linden/dp/0131774298/ref=cm_lmf_tit_3_rsrrrr0). In it he points out that one deciphers a variable declaration in C boustrophedonically from the middle. He even has a worked example to illustrate it. I have always remembered the word and it has even helped me decipher some declarations.

  • How about trying to calculate the odds of actually scoring 725 points by making BOUSTROPHEDONIC...I've got to imagine they are more than winning the lottery.

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