Boustrophedon: A Dinosaur…

...but not like you think.
Image: Brontosaurus whose skin is covered with text (lorem ipsum)
The mighty Brontosaurus Text

I was recently perusing the shelf in my office bookcase where I keep a dozen or so books on grammar and word usage, most of which I’ve rarely opened — but you have probably figured that out by now — and I spotted the thin black spine of a volume that I didn’t recognize. It was a Moleskine notebook, one that I once used to take notes while reading a book that I intended to review on the Gazette. I hadn’t used it for that purpose in fifteen years (do you spot a trend here?); the last few pages were dedicated to a book that I reviewed in 2008. And that’s where I ran across a reference to boustrophedon.

If that word doesn’t ring a bell, you’re likely in the 99.9th percentile of human beings; if it does, you may be Ken Jennings. Perhaps the following will provide some enlightenment:

Sample of boustrophedon writing style

I trust that things are much clearer now.

But seriously…boustrophedon, while definitely a great name for a dinosaur — I picture a ponderous, massive species like a brontosaurus or a brachiosaurus — in reality, and possibly more boringly depending on one’s perspective, refers to an ancient writing system wherein the order of words are reversed in alternate lines. So in the above example, which is actually the first paragraph of this post converted into the boustrophedon style, the first line is read right-to-left, the second is read left-to-right, and so on.

As an aside, I generally oppose the use of graphical text like in the above image because it poses challenges to those who are sight-impaired. In this case, I’m not really trying to communicate something with the example. But the real reason for the graphic is that it’s darned difficult, from a coding standpoint, to create an example of the alternating lines of text unique to boustrophedon so that the integrity of the style — with line breaks in the right places — is maintained across all possible devices that might be used to view this web page (e.g. desktop, tablet, phone, etc.). I know there’s a technical solution that would allow the proper display of the sample text on different devices, but I don’t have the skills (or the time or the inclination) to make that happen.

I referred to the name of this style of writing as a dinosaur in the post title, only partly because I think it’s very witty, but also because it’s no longer in use, and hasn’t been for quite some time, other than in so-called “constructed languages” (i.e. made up primarily for use in movies or novels, or for experimental uses). The most interesting proposed application of boustrophedon was suggested by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th-century philosopher, writer, and composer. Rousseau suggested that musical notation would be easier to read if it took the form of alternating directions, since the musicians’ eyes would not have to travel as far to pick up the next staff of music. As an amateur musician, and an unskillful one at that, it hurts my brain to think about trying to read and play a line of notes backwards. Apparently, I’m wasn’t the only one, because Rousseau’s idea never took flight.

There are variants on boustrophedon, including reverse boustrophedon in which every other line of text is rotated 180º. Here’s a very simple example:

In closing, I need to cite this online resource that I relied on to generate a usable example of boustrophedon. It’s a pretty great example of how you can find pretty much anything, however obscure and esoteric, on the internet.

Another example of esoteric (a fancy word for “useless”) is this post. But that’s just how we roll.


  1. Hmm…I never thought of it that way, but you’re right, sort of. Technically, in a true boustrophedon format, the digits in the section numbers going from right to left would be reversed, like this:

    6 5 4 3 2 1
    7 8 9 10 11 12
    81 71 61 51 41 31
    19 20 21 22 23 24
    03 92 82 72 62 52
    31 32 33 34 35 36

    This would, of course, drive landmen crazy, not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🤣

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