Acrostic: A text in which certain letters are placed so that they spell out words, phrases, or other significant sequences when read horizontally, vertically, or according to some other specific sequence. Acrostics may be composed using verse or prose or simply as freestanding puzzles for entertainment or education. Acrostics date back to ancient times, when they may have been used as memory aids or deemed to have magical or spiritual properties.
There are several different types of acrostics, all of which are defined in terms of the positioning of the letters forming meaningful sequences. In the true acrostic, the first letter of each line (or paragraph or sentence or other unit) forms part of a word (or words) when read “down,” that is, vertically. In the mesostich, the middle letters, read vertically, have meaning; in the telestich the last letters; and in the double acrostic both the first and last letters. Abecedarian acrostics follow an alphabetical pattern, such that the first letter of each line or other unit begins with the letters of the alphabet, in order. A still more complicated form is the cross acrostic, in which the text is arranged so that the initial letter of the first line or other unit, the second letter of the second, the third letter of the third, and so forth, spell a word. Most complex of all is the all-around acrostic, or acrostic square, in which the text is arranged in a perfect square with an equal number of letters and lines that read the same way horizontally and vertically whether starting from the top left corner or the bottom right one.
EXAMPLES: The following Roman acrostic (c. A.D. 500), written in Latin and discovered on an Egyptian papyrus, is an all-around acrostic often translated as “the sower Arepo holds the wheels carefully”:
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Elizabeth” (1829) is a true acrostic; when read “down,” the initial letters of the poem’s lines spell out the name “Elizabeth Rebecca.” David Mark Hummon’s Animal Acrostics (1999) includes “vertical” descriptions of animals as well as instructions to help children write acrostics.
Abecedarian acrostics can be found in a number of psalms and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “An ABC” (c. 1360s). Recent examples of abecedarian acrostics include Steven Schnur’s Winter: An Alphabet Acrostic (2002) and his similar publications about the other seasons.
The New York Times publishes acrostic puzzles featuring quotations from well-known figures every other week in its Sunday edition. The common crossword puzzle contains acrostic arrangements, though it is not itself a true acrostic.