An acrostic is a poem (or other form of writing) in which the first letter (or syllable, or word) of each line (or paragraph, or other recurring feature in the text) spells out a word, message or the alphabet. 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"). As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval.
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 all the five chapters that make up the Book of Lamentations, in the praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31, 10-31, and in Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145 of the Hebrew Bible. Notable among the acrostic Psalms is the long Psalm 119, which typically is printed in subsections named after the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each section consisting of 8 verses, each of which begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the entire psalm consisting of 22 x 8 = 176 verses; and Psalm 145, which is recited three times a day in the Jewish services. Some acrostic psalms are technically imperfect. E.g. Psalm 9 and Psalm 10 appear to constitute a single acrostic psalm together, but the length assigned to each letter is unequal and five of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are not represented and the sequence of two letters is reversed. In Psalm 25 one Hebrew letter is not represented, the following letter (Resh) repeated. In Psalm 34 the current final verse, 23, does fit verse 22 in content, but makes line too long. In Psalms 37 and 111 the numbering of verses and the division into lines are interfering with each other; as a result in Psalm 37, for the letters Daleth and Kaph there is only one verse, and the letter Ayin is not represented. Psalm 111 and 112 have 22 lines, but 10 verses. Psalm 145 does not represent the letter Nun, having 21 one verses, but one Qumran manuscript of this Psalm does have that missing line, which agrees with the Septuagint. 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 but rare in other languages.
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. 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.