How Acrostic Puzzles Work

Acrostic puzzles are sort of like a crazy cross between crosswords and hangman.
Acrostic puzzles are sort of like a crazy cross between crosswords and hangman.
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If crossword puzzles don't twist your brain in enough different directions, perhaps you'd like to try another form of word-driven deciphering. You can spend hours, days or weeks sorting through the hairpin turns and conniption fits that acrostic puzzles will inflict upon your mind.

Acrostic puzzles, also known as acrostics, anacrostics and crostic crosswords, are a bit like a combination of the game of hangman and traditional crosswords. You read through a list of clues, for example, "What's the capital of Belarus?" And then you pencil (or ink) the answer (Minsk, if you're wondering) into the adjacent, numbered blank lines.

Next, you copy the letters of your answer into a diagram (or grid). Each box of the diagram has an alphanumeric symbol (such as K26) that refers back to one of the letters in your answers in each clue. The grid is a series of white and black boxes, just as with crossword puzzles.

But that's not all. When finished, the first letter of each word in the grid will spell out a quote or famous saying. In many acrostic puzzles, though (especially the ones you find online), that quote may be made up of any of the letters in your answers and not just the initial letter.

If that all sounds a bit, well, puzzling to you, perhaps the best way to understand is simply to dive in and try a few acrostic puzzles. You'll find numerous Web sites that let you begin playing these games for free and without any sort of time-consuming registration processes.

Be aware, however, that there are different styles of acrostic games online, and in print, so it pays to read the introduction or directions first to avoid needless, hair-pulling exasperation. Although trust us -- even when you follow the instructions and work them properly, acrostic puzzles have the potential to induce serious frustration. But as puzzle lovers all say, that's just part of the fun.

On the next page, you'll uncover clues about the history of acrostics and get a much better idea of where these dastardly puzzles came from.

What in the Heck is an Acrostic?

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: An acrostic fan?
Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger: An acrostic fan?
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

The acrostic form has been around for centuries, long before its appearance in mind-melting puzzles. They've popped up in religious literature, poetry, correspondence and even in gravestone epitaphs.

The word itself is definitely old-school. It comes from a jumbled Greek letter salad (akrostikhis), which is primarily made up of the words akros (at the extremity) and stikhos (line of verse).

So basically, an acrostic is multiple lines of verse in which certain letters (usually the first letter of each line) -- when read in sequence -- form a message. Because the writers of acrostics don't always announce their intentions, their message-within-a-message may often go overlooked, and in effect, acrostics can be a sneaky way to slip in a message that only a few people really understand.

As evidence, you might take former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto letter to his state's legislature. In the now-infamous letter, the governor outlined his displeasure with the legislature's persistent inaction on issues important to him.

But when taken from an acrostic perspective, the initial letters of each line of the correspondence resulted in an obscene phrase, ostensibly directed at the governor's opponents.

Schwarzenegger's spokespeople denied that the vulgarity was purposeful, but many pundits (including mathematicians who calculated the probability of a coincidence) said the phrase was an unlikely accident [source: Wall Street Journal].

Not all acrostics serve such rough functions. Sometimes they're used in poetry, like this poem about the sun [source: ReadWriteThink]:

Shines brightly / Up in the sky / Nice and warm on my skin

The first letters of each of the poem's line spell, of course, the word sun.

Others, such as teachers and their students, use acrostics as mnemonic devices, to help people remember important things. Want to recall the bones of the human skull? Just keep in mind the phrase Old People From Texas Eat Spiders. The first letters of those words correspond, respectively, to occipital, parietal, frontal, temporal, ethmoid and spenoid [source: LearningInfo].

Acrostics take other forms, too. On the next page, you'll see more acrostics acrobatics.

Acrostics Across History

The Christian fish symbol has an acrostic connection.
The Christian fish symbol has an acrostic connection.

Acrostics have been around so long that they've had their brushes with lasting fame. As an example, one religious Greek acrostic is Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter, which means Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. In the Greek alphabet, both "th" and "ch" are actually one letter. So when you take the first letter of each of those works, you wind up with ICHTHYS, which in Greek means fish, and accounts for the frequent use of the fish symbol for Jesus.

The mental conniption fits that acrostics inspire have attracted famous people in history. Lewis Carroll, for example, included an acrostic in his story, "Through the Looking Glass." A poem in the story's final chapter spells out the full name of Carroll's most famous character: Alice Pleasance Liddell, who of is the heroine in "Alice in Wonderland."

Edgar Allan Poe interwove acrostics into his work, too. He actually titled one of his poems, "An Acrostic," and the not-so-hidden message spelled out Elizabeth, a female admirer.

As you already know, not all acrostics are puzzles, and there are some notable variants within the acrostic form itself. One type is called double acrostic. In a double acrostic, the first and last letter of each line of text results in the same word or phrase. In an alternate version, the last letters spell the same word, but they do so in reverse order, with the mystery word spelled beginning at the end of the last line.

Double acrostics are a type of multiple acrostic. But some acrostics of the multiple type go to the next level, such as with William Browne's poem called "Behold, O God." The poem's text has highlighted letters that, when isolated from the other letters, form three independent phrases, for example, "O God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

But this particular multiple acrostic takes things even further. As you push the highlighted letters together, they actually form three crosses. So not only does it result in new phrases, but it celebrates Browne's convictions visually, too.

It's no wonder that people who love a good mental workout decided to put acrostics into puzzle form. Speaking of which, we'll take a look at the history and popularity of the acrostic puzzle itself in the next section.

History of the Acrostic Puzzle

You don’t need a pencil, or even a computer, to play acrostics. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can download the Crostix app and play these puzzles anywhere you go.
You don’t need a pencil, or even a computer, to play acrostics. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can download the Crostix app and play these puzzles anywhere you go.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

You already know that the use of the acrostic as wordplay has a long and storied history. The puzzle form of acrostics, however, is a comparatively new invention.

No one knows for sure exactly who had the idea of morphing acrostic poetry into puzzles, but the games did appear in printed form in the mid 19th-century. England's Queen Victoria was a known devotee of acrostics and composed her own puzzles, leading some historians to speculate that perhaps she sparked the acrostic puzzle phenomenon.

Modern acrostic puzzles are the brainchild of Elizabeth Kingsley, who first unveiled these games in the Saturday Review in March 1934. Those first puzzles were called Double Crostic. As with most acrostic puzzles, the completed grid unveiled a famous quotation. In addition, the first letter of the answers to clues revealed a title and author of a book, poem or other written work.

Kingsley's work proved to be so popular that The New York Times hired her to create acrostic puzzles, too. She composed the puzzles for the paper's readers from May 1943 to the end of 1952.

Since then, The New York Times has been known for its challenging acrostics, much as it is known for its synapse-shattering crossword puzzles. Masterful acrostic puzzle makers have called The Times home, and surprisingly, since Kingsley's reign ended, only four other people have authored them, including Doris Wortman, Thomas Middleton and most recently, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon.

The puzzles garnered a rabid fan base and have generally appeared in The Times every two weeks for decades now. And when they don't, a lot of people get very upset, as evidenced by the number of comments and calls The Times receives when substitute puzzles appear in place of acrostics.

Like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other brain games, acrostics have a devoted following of people who love to tweak their gray matter. These days, fans can find their favorite game in a variety of formats.

Publishers, like The New York Times, still print book-bound puzzles of all types, including acrostics collections. You'll find these at well-stocked book stores or through online book retailers. Books are great, but the fastest way to jump into acrostic puzzles is online. With a quick search you'll find numerous sites that let you play immediately, such as The New York Times' Web site. As of this writing, there weren't any apps for Android smartphones, but the Apple App store does allow you to download both a free and paid version of the Crostix app. There are also many sites that let you print puzzles with your home printer.

By now we've probably whetted your desire to try a few acrostic puzzles yourself. But be forewarned -- on the next page, you'll see why proper strategy is key to solving acrostics.

Solving Acrostic Puzzles

If you like a good game of hangman, enjoy a tough crossword and really love the game show staple Wheel of Fortune, acrostic puzzles will provide you with the kind of endless entertainment that maybe not even Pat Sajak can match. Like all puzzles, acrostics can be easy or devilishly challenging. A broad educational background, good memory, and logical thinking skills all will serve you well in your acrostics battles.

No matter how hard or easy they might be, there are strategies you can deploy to maximize your success rate and reveal your ultimate prize – the mysterious quote.

For starters, understand that one word often spans two lines of the gridded diagram. Line breaks don't signal the end of word; only black squares do. Misunderstand this aspect of the puzzle and you'll likely wind up in tears before solving your first challenge. Also understand that the final quote is read horizontally, and that you never read the squares in a diagram vertically; if you do, you'll see just gibberish. You should also know that you won't see punctuation, such as hyphens or apostrophes, in these puzzles.

It's generally best to skim through the clues first and fill in the answers that you're certain are correct. If you're completing the puzzle online or in a computer program, the application usually automatically transfers each letter of your answer to the diagram, which eventually will spell out the entire quote.

If you're doing this puzzle on paper, you'll have to fill in the diagram manually. Unless you're quite fond of maximum frustration, use a pencil with an eraser.

After you figure out answer to a few clues, you'll see that the diagram is partially complete. Often, you'll see fragments of words that you can guess. If you're confident about a word, you can complete it in the diagram and then transfer the letters back to the blank clue area, which it turn may help spark an answer to the clue.

In this manner, completing an acrostic puzzle is something like starting a fire with damp wood. It takes a while to get things going, but it picks up momentum and takes off in a hurry.

Once in a while, though, you'll see that the diagram is filling with a series of letters that can't possibly be a word. That's when it's time to review any dubious answers you provided to a clue. Just remember that sometimes words with the same meaning (synonyms) also have the same number of letters, a fact that has added to the misery of ardent crossworders for generations. With online acrostic puzzles, in particular, you may also consider another possibility – that the puzzle itself contains mistakes.

Just like crossword puzzles, the clues can range from exceedingly easy to almost unbelievably hard. If you don't mind cheating, however, Google (or another Internet search engine) can be your best friend when clues prove insurmountable.

So as you take on your first round of acrostic puzzles, embrace the challenges and rejoice in your successes. And when the going gets too tough and you can't find an answer, you can take solace in this bit of truth -- a lot of other people are cheating with Google, too.

Related Articles


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