Monday, 12 September 2011

Coming over all boustrophedon

Awful cover - I much prefer
the older one
I was reading an old Morse book at the weekend to have a break from science. Specifically Service of All the Dead. This is not my favourite of Colin Dexter's novels. The plot is ridiculously unlikely. And the attitude to homosexuality (pretty well equated with paedophilia) and women ('You're a pretty little thing,' being a commonplace and inoffensive sort of comment) seems more 1960s than 1979 when the book was written. But it did get me thinking.

Specifically, at one point Morse is searching a church and Dexter says he does this boustrophedon. My immediate reaction was to think he was showing off, and this was a classic example of using a word many people didn't know just for the sake of it. As it happens I did know what it meant. It was originally a form of writing where, having reached the end of the line, the writer starts the next line at the same end, writing the next line backwards. Then starts at the usual end again and writes forwards. And so on. The term comes from the way parallel furrows are ploughed (by an ox).

Thinking Dexter was showing off, I thought 'Why didn't he just say that Morse zig-zagged up and down the pews?' This would certainly be easier to understand. But on giving it a bit more thought, to be fair to Dexter, it's not quite the same thing. A zig-zag should be like the letter Z, with the connecting back movement at an angle. You don't do that with ploughing or writing, and you can't do that if, like Morse, you are constrained by church pews. Technically you have to go boustrophedon.

So here's the dilemma. I still think Dexter was showing off, and I still think that it's not a good idea to use words most people don't understand (and all but a tiny fraction won't bother to look up). This reduces your ability as a writer to communicate. Yet at the same time, it was, without doubt, the right word. I think maybe I would have engineered some way for Lewis to calling it zig-zagging, so Morse could correct him and introduce the proper term. But I can't really falt Colin Dexter for using the word that does the job best.

See Service of All the Dead at and at

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