[uh-kraw-stik, uh-kros-tik]
acrostic, arrangement of words or lines in which a series of initial, final, or other corresponding letters, when taken together, stand in a set order to form a word, a phrase, the alphabet, or the like. A famous acrostic was made on the Greek for Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior: Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter (ch and th being each one letter in Greek). The initials spell ichthus, Greek for fish; hence the frequent use of the fish by early Christians as a symbol for Jesus. There are several alphabetic acrostics (pertaining to the Hebrew alphabet) in the Bible, e.g., in Ps. 119 and Lamentations. Acrostic verses are common, and very elaborate puzzles have been devised combining several schemes.

An acrostic (from the late Greek akróstichon, from ákros, "top", and stíchos, "verse") is a poem or other writing in an alphabetic script, in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out another message. A form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval. A famous acrostic was made on the Greek for the acclamation JESUS CHRIST, GOD'S SON, SAVIOUR which in Greek is: Iesous CHristos, THeou Uios, Soter (ch and th being each one letter in Greek and u is also y). The initials spell ICHTHUS same as ICHTHYS, Greek for fish; hence the frequent use of the fish by early Christians and up to now as a symbol for Jesus Christ.


The word acrostic was first applied to the prophecies of the Erythraean Sibyl, which were written on leaves and arranged so that the initial letters of the leaves always formed a word. This technique was later used to ingenious effect by Vladimir Nabokov in his story The Vane Sisters.


Acrostics may simply spell out the letters of the alphabet in order; these acrostics occur in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and in Psalms 9,10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 of the Hebrew Bible. Two further notable 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 (commonly referred to as "Ashrei"), which is recited three times a day in the Jewish services.

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), or as in the poem To Doctor Empiric (by Ben Jonson) which is a verse outlined after the word W-O-L-F giving emphasis to, and capitalizing the key letters so such acrostic is relatively easier to discern. 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. Using letters to hide a message, as in acrostic ciphers, was popular during the Renaissance, and could employ various different 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.


Here is a modern example of an acrostic poem in English, composed of epigrams in iambic pentameter, arranged in heroic couplets with rhyme pattern a/a, b/b, c/c, d/d/d ending in triplet entitled Serana to WIKIPEDIA, written by David J Serana published in a website dedicated to formal acrostic poetry written in classical verses; Wisdom systemized in a complex net Information metropolis is set Knowledge super way spins in liberty I learn many things out of rafferty People, events, places, things; organized Exposed, refined, edited, scrutinized Deleted, published; found truth, accepted Information errors intercepted An ingenuity unexcepted!

The Dutch national anthem (The William) is an acrostic: 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.

Here is a classic example of acrostic poem in English written by Edgar Allan Poe entitled simply An Acrostic:

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.

Another example is from Lewis Carrol's "Through the Looking-Glass". The final chapter "A Boat, Beneath A Sunny Sky" 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?

Here is another example where the initial letters spell out the months of the year, entitled A Calendar Acrostic:

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, AUGust ill, for Janet died. SEPulchre was sadly made. OCTaves pealed and prayers were said. NOVices with ma'y a tear DECorated Janet's bier.

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 - Set among hills in the midst of five valleyS, This peaceful little market town we inhabiT Refuses (vociferously!) to be a conformeR. Once home of the cloth it gave its name tO, Uphill and down again its streets lead yoU. Despite its faults it leaves us all charmeD.

Other examples can be considerably more complex. The illustration shows a manuscript of the poem Behold, O God, in rivers of my tears by William Browne of Tavistock (found in Withington church, Gloucestershire), which is a triple acrostic showing the three crosses of Christ and the two thieves, each with a quotation from the New Testament account. On the central cross is the label "INRI" above the sentence "O God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"; on the outer crosses "If thou art the Christ, save thyself and us" and "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." The full text (with a few variants, but without the acrostics highlighted) can be found at page 4-5 of this link to Browne's works

Disputed acrostics

There are some acrostics whose authenticities are disputed. For instance, the first Hebrew letter of each consecutive Hebrew name from Adam to the father of Abraham appears to form an acrostic that when translated in English reads: I WILL FORGIVE MY ENEMIES, HAVING COMPASSION, FORGIVING THOSE MADE FROM DUST A SECOND TIME. However, it is debatable whether this acrostic is the result of random chance or by design.

The acrostic appears to be highly structured. For example, the Hebrew word for forgiveness also means, "to lift up". Thus it may also read (and note the play on words), "I will lift up those who have risen up against me, having compassion, lifting up those (laid low in) the dust a second time."


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