AskDefine | Define acrostic

Dictionary Definition



1 a puzzle where you fill a square grid with words reading the same down as across [syn: word square]
2 verse in which certain letters such as the first in each line form a word or message

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A poem or other text in which certain letters, often the first in each line, spell out a name or message.


  • Croatian: akrostih
  • Italian: acrostico

See also

Extensive Definition

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 aide memory retrieval.


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 certain areas of the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Two 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). Giving emphasis to, and capitalizing the key letters renders such acrostics 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. Acrostic ciphers were popular during the Renaissance, and could employ various different methods of enciphering, such as selecting other letters than initials based on a repeating patten (equidistant letter sequences), or even concealing the message by starting at the end of the text and working backwards.


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 an example in English, an Edgar Allan Poe poem titled 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.

Disputed acrostics

There are some acrostics whose authenticities are disputed. For instance, the first letter of each consecutive Hebrew name from Adam to the father of Abraham appears to form an acrostic that 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."
acrostic in Bulgarian: Акростих
acrostic in Catalan: Acròstic
acrostic in Czech: Akrostich
acrostic in Danish: Akrostikon
acrostic in German: Akrostichon
acrostic in Spanish: Acróstico
acrostic in Esperanto: Akrostiko
acrostic in French: Acrostiche
acrostic in Scottish Gaelic: Cros-dhàn
acrostic in Galician: Acróstico
acrostic in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Acrostico
acrostic in Italian: Acrostico
acrostic in Hebrew: אקרוסטיכון
acrostic in Lithuanian: Akrostichas
acrostic in Hungarian: Akrosztichon
acrostic in Dutch: Acrostichon
acrostic in Japanese: 折句
acrostic in Norwegian: Akrostikon
acrostic in Polish: Akrostych
acrostic in Portuguese: Acróstico
acrostic in Romanian: Acrostih
acrostic in Russian: Акростих
acrostic in Slovak: Akrostich
acrostic in Slovenian: Akrostih (pesem)
acrostic in Swedish: Akrostikon
acrostic in Turkish: Akrostiş
acrostic in Ukrainian: Акростих

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

abuse of terms, acronym, amphibologism, amphiboly, anagram, avyayibhava, back formation, calembour, clipped word, compound, conjugate, construction, corruption, dvandva, dvigu, endocentric compound, equivocality, equivoque, exocentric compound, formation, jeu de mots, logogram, logogriph, malapropism, metagram, missaying, palindrome, paronomasia, paronym, play on words, pun, punning, spoonerism, tatpurusha, word form, wordplay
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