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Title: Acrostic  
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Subject: Glossary of literary terms, Acrostic (puzzle), Psalm 119, Ichthys, The Hunting of the Snark
Collection: Graphic Poetry, Word Games
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An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out a word or a message.[1] The word comes from the French acrostiche from post-classical Latin acrostichis, from Koine Greek ἀκροστιχίς, from Ancient Greek ἄκρος "highest, topmost" and στίχος "verse").[2] As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval.


  • Overview 1
  • Examples 2
  • Multiple acrostics 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Relatively simple acrostics may merely spell out the letters of the alphabet in order; such an acrostic may be called an 'alphabetical acrostic' or Abecedarius. These acrostics occur in the first four of the five songs that make up the Book of Lamentations, in the praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31, 10-31, and in Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 of the Hebrew Bible.[3] Notable among the acrostic Psalms are the long Psalm 119, which typically is printed in subsections named after the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each of which is featured in that section; and Psalm 145, which is recited three times a day in the Jewish services. Acrostics prove that the texts in question were originally composed in writing, rather than having existed in oral tradition before being put into writing.

Acrostics are common in medieval literature, where they usually serve to highlight the name of the poet or his patron, or to make a prayer to a saint. They are most frequent in verse works but can also appear in prose. The Middle High German poet Rudolf von Ems for example opens all his great works with an acrostic of his name, and his world chronicle marks the beginning of each age with an acrostic of the key figure (Moses, David, etc.). In chronicles, acrostics are common in German and English, though rare in other languages.[4]

Often the ease of detectability of an acrostic can depend on the intention of its creator. In some cases an author may desire an acrostic to have a better chance of being perceived by an observant reader, such as the acrostic contained in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (where the key capital letters are decorated with ornate embellishments). However, acrostics may also be used as a form of steganography, where the author seeks to conceal the message rather than proclaim it. This might be achieved by making the key letters uniform in appearance with the surrounding text, or by aligning the words in such a way that the relationship between the key letters is less obvious. This is referred to as null ciphers in steganography, using the first letter of each word to form a hidden message in an otherwise innocuous text.[5] Using letters to hide a message, as in acrostic ciphers, was popular during the Renaissance, and could employ various methods of enciphering, such as selecting other letters than initials based on a repeating pattern (equidistant letter sequences), or even concealing the message by starting at the end of the text and working backwards.[6]


A famous acrostic was made in Greek for the acclamation JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, SAVIOUR. The initials spell ΙΧΘΥΣ (ICHTHYS), which means fish:

ησούς    I  esous   Jesus
Χριστός   CH ristos  Christ
Θεού      TH eou     of God
Υἱός      Y  ios     son
Σωτήρ     S  oter    saviour

There is also an acrostic secreted in the Dutch national anthem Het Wilhelmus[7] (The William): the first letters of its fifteen stanzas spell WILLEM VAN NASSOV. This was one of the hereditary titles of William of Orange (William the Silent), who introduces himself in the poem to the Dutch people. This title also returned in the 2010 speech from the throne, during the Dutch State Opening of Parliament. The first 15 lines formed also WILLEM VAN NASSOV.

Vladimir Nabokov's short story "The Vane Sisters" is famous for its acrostic final paragraph, which contains a message from beyond the grave.

There is a classic example of an acrostic poem written in English by Edgar Allan Poe, entitled simply "An Acrostic":[8]

Elizabeth it is in vain you say
"Love not"—thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L.E.L.
Zantippe's talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breath it less gently forth—and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love—was cured of all beside—
His follie—pride—and passion—for he died.

A Double Acrostic by Lewis Carroll
It was while calling one day upon Mrs. Bremer that Lewis Carroll scribbled off this double acrostic on the names of her two daughters, Trina and Freda

A Double Acrostic by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll wrote this unique double acrostic for Gertrude Chataway. The verses embody her name in two ways—by letters, and by syllables

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the final chapter "A Boat, Beneath A Sunny Sky"[9] is an acrostic of the real Alice's name: Alice Pleasance Liddell.

A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July -

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear -

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream -
Lingering in the golden gleam -
Life, what is it but a dream?

Contained in A Calendar Acrostic is an example that uses the first three letters of each line, not just the first, for abbreviations for the months of the year:

JANet was quite ill one day.
FEBrile trouble came her way.
MARtyr-like, she lay in bed;
APRoned nurses softly sped.
MAYbe, said the leech judicial
JUNket would be beneficial.
JULeps, too, though freely tried,
AUGured ill, for Janet died.
SEPulchre was sadly made.
OCTaves pealed and prayers were said.
NOVices with ma'y a tear
DECorated Janet's bier.

In January 2010, Jonathan I. Schwartz, the CEO of Sun Microsystems, sent an email to Sun employees on the completion of the acquisition of Sun by Oracle Corporation. The initial letters of the first seven paragraphs spelled "Beat IBM".[10]

James May, presenter on the BBC program Top Gear, was fired from the publication Autocar for spelling out a message using the large red initial at the beginning of each review in the publication's Road Test Yearbook Issue for 1992. Properly punctuated, the message reads: "So you think it's really good? Yeah, you should try making the bloody thing up. It's a real pain in the arse."[11]

In 2013 a school headmaster resigned after announcing the retirement of a teacher in a statement which began "We all now know every really great teacher has to finish one day..." The initial letters of the first six words caused offence.[12]

In the video game Zork the first letters of sentences in a prayer spelled "Odysseus" which was a possible solution to a cyclops encounter in another room.[13]

Multiple acrostics

Acrostics can be more complex than just by making words from initials. A double acrostic, for example, may have words at the beginning and end of its lines, as this example, on the name of Stroud, by Paul Hansford -

 S et among hills in the midst of  five valley S,
 T his peaceful little   market town we inhabi T
 R efuses  (vociferously!) to  be  a  conforme R.
 O nce home  of  the cloth  it gave its name t O,
 U phill and down again its  streets  lead  yo U.
 D espite its faults it leaves  us all  charme D.

The poem Behold, O God!, by William Browne,[14] can be considered a complex kind of acrostic. In the manuscript, some letters are capitalized and written extra-large, non-italic, and in red, and the lines are shifted left or right and internally spaced out as necessary to position the red letters within three crosses that extend through all the lines of the poem. The letters within each cross spell out a verse from the New Testament:

  • left: Luke 23:42: "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom."
  • middle: Matthew 27:46: "O God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
  • right: Luke 23:39: "If thou art the Christ, save thyself and us."

The "INRI" at the top of the middle cross stands for Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, Latin for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (John 19:3). The three quotes represent the three figures crucified on Golgotha, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

(The text of the manuscript shown differs significantly from the text usually published, including in the reference.[14] Many of the lines have somewhat different wording; and while the acrostics are the same as far as they go, the published text is missing the last four lines, truncating the acrostics to "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kin", "O God, my God, why hast thou forsak", and "If thou art the Christ, save thyself". The manuscript text is printed below, first as normal poetry, then spaced and bolded to bring out the acrostics. The word "Thou" in line 8 is not visible in this photograph, but is in the published version and is included in a cross-stitch sampler of the poem from 1793.[15])

Behold, O God! In rivers of my tears
I come to thee! bow down thy blessed ears
To hear my Plaint; and let thine eyes which keep
Continual watch behold a Sinner weep:
Let not, O God my God my Sins, tho' great,
And numberless, between thy Mercy's-Seat
And my poor Soul have place; since we are taught,
[Thou] Lord, remember'st thyne, if Thou art sought.
I come not, Lord, with any other merit
Than what I by my Saviour Christ inherit:
Be then his wounds my balm— his stripes my Bliss;
His thorns my crown; my death be blest in his.
And thou, my blest Redeemer, Saviour, God,
Quit my accounts, withhold thy vengeful rod!
O beg for me, my hopes on Thee are set;
And Christ forgive me, since thou'st paid my debt
The living font, the Life, the Way, I know,
And but to thee, O whither shall I go?
All other helps are vain: grant thine to me,
For in thy cross my saving health I see.
O hearken then, that I with faith implore,
Lest Sin and Death sink me to rise no more.
Lastly, O God, my course direct and guide,
In Death defend me, that I never slide;
And at Doomsday let me be rais'd again,
To live with thee sweet Jesus say, Amen.

                  Behold,  O  God!  IN RI  vers of my tears
               I come to thee! bow         down thy blessed ears
                To hear my Plaint;         and let thine eyes which keep
                   Continual watch         behold a Sinner weep:
                  Let not,      O GOD my GOD        my Sins, tho' great,
                  And numberless, bet W een thy Mercy's-Seat
      And my    poor             Soul H ave place; since we are taught,
[Thou] Lord, remember st           th Y ne,            If Thou art   sought.
        I co ME not, Lord,        wit H any              o THE r merit
        Than WH at I by        my   S A viour              CH rist inherit:
       Be th EN his             Wound S my  Balm—  his  St RI pes my Bliss;
         His TH orns my crown; my dea T h       be     ble ST in his.
      And th OU ,            my  bles T Redeemer         , SA viour, God,
  Quit my ac CO unts,            with H old            thy VE ngeful rod!
   O beg for ME ,           my      h O pes             on T  hee are set;
    And Chri ST                 forgi V e   me,   since  t H  ou'st paid my debt
     The liv IN g        font, the Li F e,     the      Wa Y , I know,
     And but TO thee,                 O whither            S hall I go?
       All o TH er          helps   a R e vain: grant thin E to me,
   For in th Y cross               my S aving          hea L th I see.
      O hear K en then,            th A t       I     with F aith implore,
      Lest S IN and        Death  sin K me    to      rise + no more.
   Lastly, O G od,          my  cours E direct             A nd guide,
          In D eath              defe N d me,   that     I N ever slide;
   And at Do OM sday              let M e    be      rais' D again,
     To live +  with              the E sweet          Jes US say, Amen.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. acrostic; "The expected spelling of the English word, on the n., monostich n."
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^
    Described in

External links

  • An unflattering gravestone acrostic poem in a Montreal cemetery
  • Acrostic epitaph of Gustavus Conyngham
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