We’re having something of an Indian Summer in Ohio, which doesn’t mean our Cleveland baseball team has made it through to the World Series but that although it is October, the temperature is warm enough to allow me to ride my motorcycle and wear T-shirts. It also means that the grass in my back yard is continuing to grow and has now reached a level that could end up in my being fined by the local council for breaking Property Code Ordinance 302.4 “All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches.”
I believe this is done to encourage a sense of order and tidiness among the city residents although it strikes me as another example of petty state interference with personal liberty. After all, I may be a lover of nature and find tall weeds attractive. It’s a curious reflection on human nature that we invent laws to force people to “control” their environment and bend nature to our own bidding. I’ve always felt that this is much more noticeable in the US, where the underlying assumption is that there are no such thing as accidents and “mistakes” are failures to control something.
Fundamentally, many Americans believe the universe is built on Order whereas I believe it is built on Chaos. When weeds grow in my garden, or ants invade my kitchen, it’s not because I have failed to maintain some sort of “order” but that such chaotic behavior is, in fact, the way things are. Trying to impose human order on a chaotic universe is a short-term fix at best but ultimately doomed to end in the collapse of our cities and the triumph of weeds and insects over the earth.
This philosophy may, of course, be little more than a feeble attempt to provide a reason for not mowing the yard.
Such agriculture activities as mowing, tilling, and sowing are at the linguistic root of the word boustrophedon, which is an adjective defined by the OED as referring to scripts that are;
(Written) alternately from right to left and from left to right, like the course of the plough in successive furrows; as in various ancient inscriptions in Greek and other languages.
The word literally means “as an ox turns while plowing.” This means you plow across the field from right to left, then turn around and plow from left to right, and so ad finem. The Greek word βου means “an ox” and στρόϕος means “turning” – hence “turning like an ox.”
Perhaps the earliest example of boustrophedon writing is in the form of Linear B, a script discovered in 1900 by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered a number of clay tablets at Knossos on the island of Crete. It wasn’t until 1953 that the script was finally deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. They discovered that it represented an early dialect of Greek that became known as Mycenaean, named after the home of King Agamemnon, Mycenae.
If you look at the image above and the symbol that looks like a “K,” you will see that it on the first line it is the right way round but on the second it is mirrored. Other characters do the same thing. Here’s what boustrophedon English looks like:
Not surprisingly, boustrophedon scripts seem to have been a fad and only a small number of such writing systems have been found.
Despite this being an old word, and certainly one that we could confidently predict to be an atypical entry in most people’s mental dictionary, it crops up in on of the Inspector Morse series of novels by the English crime writer, Colin Dexter. In 1979’s Service of All the Dead, he describes how a character walks through a church:
She then walked boustrophedon along the pews on either side of the main aisle, replacing on their hooks whatever loose hassocks had been left on the floor, flicking the pew-ledges with a yellow duster, and at the same time collecting a few stray hymn-books and prayer-books.
Although this accurately described how one would most efficiently clean the seats in a church, I can’t help thinking that there’s just a little showing off going on here by Colin. Still, he didn’t then follow up by describing how she may have walked around the church “widdershins.”
It’s worth noting that the word has been used by some computer geeks to describe the action of a printer, where the head prints in one direction but then prints backwards in the other. And math geeks will be aware of something called the Boustrophedon Transformation, which is apparently a method of mapping one sequence against another and involves the creation of a triangular array. But alas, my love of words is inversely proportional to my love of numbers, so I’m happy to simply direct interested parties to Wikipedia’s page entitled Boustrophedon Transform.
And as a last thought: If the “-strophe” part has made you think of words such as apostrophe and catastrophe, then that’s to be expected. Both these words derive from the same Greek root. Apostrophe is from ἀπό meaning “away” and στρόϕος meaning “turning;” thus, a “turning away.” Catastrophe comes from καταστροϕή, meaning “an overturning or sudden change,” derived from κατά meaning “down” and the στρόϕος.
Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or a bizarre accident with the lawn mower, I’ll be back next week with another meandering through the world of words.