Acrostic is an anglicized Greek word signifying a composition, usually in verse, in which initial (or occasionally middle and final) letters are arranged in such an order as to form words. When middle and final letters are so employed, there is question rather of mesostichs and telestichs respectively. The word type, as well as the alphabetical form of acrostic, is Oriental in origin. The earliest Greek example dates from the beginning of the 2nd century b.c. The word form of acrostic was a characteristic feature of the pagan Sibylline Oracles (see Cicero, Div. 2.54.171–) and other oracular or magicoreligious texts. Hence, it was only natural that the Christian Sibylline books should make use of the same device. In book 8, 217–250 (written near the end of the 2nd century a.d.), one finds the well-known acrostic:'Ιησοûς Χριστòς Θεοû [symbol omitted][symbol omitted]ιòς Σωτ[symbol omitted]ρ σταυρός (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, Cross), which—with the omission of σταυρός furnishes also the widespread acrostic ΙΧΘΣ[symbol omitted] (in Greek, fish, a basic early Christian symbol). The passage from the Sibyllines is presented in Latin translation by St. Augustine (Civ. 18.23) in such a way that the initial letters of each Latin verse reproduce the Greek verse cited—but without the word σταυρóς in Latin transliteration. In the Pectorius inscription found near Autun, the initial Greek letters of the first five verses furnish the acrostic ΙΧΘ[symbol omitted]Σ also. In keeping with the Oriental background, frequent use of acrostics is noted likewise in Christian Syriac poetry, especially in the hymns of St. Ephrem. Optatianus Porphyrius (first half of 4th century a.d.), Ausonius, and Commodian employed elaborate acrostics, and acrostics became common as a device for indicating the name of the deceased in Christian funeral epigrams, especially the name of a martyr.
The alphabetic acrostic, familiar from the Lamentations of Jeremia and from a number of Psalms, is the obvious source for Christian Greek and Latin acrostics of this kind. St. Hilary of Poitiers has two abecedarian hymns, and St. Augustine made use of this form as a memory aid in his famous Psalmus abecedarius contra partem Donati. The abecedarian hymn (A solis ortus cardine ) of Sedulius has become a part of the Christmas liturgy. In the tradition of Optatianus Porphyrius, acrostics were developed to a fantastic degree in the carmina figurata of Rabanus Maurus in the Carolingian age. Acrostics of the earlier and simple form continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages and have had a sporadic life down to the present time (see pectorius, epitaph of).
Bibliography: a. kurfess and t. klauser, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950)–] 1:235–238, an excellent treatment with bibliog. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 1.1:356–372, with full texts and plates. f. dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie (2d ed. Leipzig 1925) 146–151. m. manitius, Geschichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters, 3 v. (Munich 1911–31), Indexes s.v. "Akrosticha."
[m. r. p. mcguire]
a·cros·tic / əˈkrôstik; əˈkräs-/ • n. a poem, word puzzle, or other composition in which certain letters in each line form a word or words.