By Contributing Writer Sarah Scullin
Acrostics—the name given to secret words spelled out in the first lines or paragraphs of a text—are experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to two high-profile letters that used this hidden coding to protest the Trump administration. In Late August, Former Science Envoy Daniel Kammen tweeted out a resignation letter, addressed to Trump, that featured the acrostic I-M-P-E-A-C-H. Just five days earlier the 17 members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in a joint letter, spelled out R-E-S-I-S-T.
Now, before one lobs accusations that this acrostic-usage is a bit of partisan foolishness, let me just mention that these are merely the most recent in a long line of what could be accused of bipartisan foolishness, given the long-lived B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I Twitter acrostic is accused here of being “inane” and “crazy” and “extremely distracting.” For those centrists who like to believe themselves above the fray, may I direct you to the governator’s subtle F-U-C-K Y-O-U to San Franciscan lawmakers.
Acrostics, then, seem to be considered an equally partisan—if “not exactly sophisticated”—way to register protest. But this practice didn’t begin four years ago on Twitter, it has deep roots in antiquity; and it wasn’t always used for registering political anger or protest.
Contextualizing these recent acrostics within the history of the practice is a useful way of analyzing them. It’s certainly easy enough to dismiss the B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I tweets as empty “insanity,” or to label the Trump resignation acrostics as “infantile inanity.” After all, most Americans’ experience with acrostics happens in grade school, when we’re forced to crayon a M-O-T-H-E-R poem for Mother’s Day or eke out a rhyming poem that matches each letter of our first name to some kind of self-esteem boosting creed of “things I’m good at.” But comparing the ancient and modern usage can lead us to ask deeper questions we might not have otherwise: What kind of message does an acrostic really send? How can we assess if an acrostic is “productive”? Are acrostics hidden messages or overt snark? Are they—in fact—childish tricks, or do they have some kind of binding, magical force?
THE POWER OF THE WORD
Some of the oldest acrostics are found in the Hebrew bible. These biblical puzzles are primarily of what’s known as the “alphabetic” type. Now these earliest examples don’t really absolve acrostics of their grade-school reputation, since they literally just spelled out—as the name implies—the alphabet (see, e.g. Psalms 9-10). These types of acrostics were meant to capitalize on the magic (like, actual magic) that the alphabet was thought to possess. This is the same kind of magical thinking that underlies the term “abracadabra,” or the practice in kabbalism of assigning numerical power to letters.
In this case, the message is not so much contained within the meaning of the actual encoded word as it is in the binding power of the acrostic form. When looked at this way, those grade-school alphabetic acrostics aren’t just a case of an author being clever (or practicing his ABCs), but speak to some of the most powerful issues that underlie artistic expression, especially that of the written word: everything we say, everything you read, for better or worse (and in these days of online commentary, more seems to be for the worse than the better) is made from a small handful of letters. The power of the word—of the letters that make the word—should not, perhaps, be dismissed as sophomoric.
Nearly as old as the biblical examples, Babylonian acrostics date back to the 7th c. BCE kings Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadrezzar II, both of whom were recipients of acrostic poems that spelled out their names (gifts for ancient Babylonian Father’s Day?). Similar to the R-E-S-I-S-T and I-M-P-E-A-C-H acrostics, these puzzles are decoded by stringing together the first letter of each stanza (i.e. paragraph) of the poem. In direct contrast to our modern political examples, the majority of these acrostics, found in hymns, prayers, or wisdom poems, spelled out names or sentences that were obvious praise for an authority—usually the king or a god.
There is one exception, however: one Babylonian acrostic does seem to allow for political dissent, even if it actually reverses the situation we see in, say, the governator’s acrostic: the poem entitled The Babylonian Theodicy is ostensibly about how terrible the gods are (the poem presents a dialogue between friends, one of whom blames the gods for his misfortunes, while the other, who defends the gods for the majority of the poem, eventually concedes the point that the gods are, in fact, assholes). The author of this poem, however, uses an acrostic to embed the message that he, unlike his fictional subjects, loves the god and the king (“I, Saggil-kînam-ubbib, the incantation priest, am adorant of the god and the king”). Rather than registering dissent, here the author uses an acrostic to protect himself from charges of heresy and disloyalty.
This example is more appropriately a reversal in the form, not the intent of Schwarznegger’s acrostic, where plausible deniability is assured for both Arnold and Saggil-kînam-ubbib. In the case of R-E-S-I-S-T, I-M-P-E-A-C-H, and B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I, however, the relationship between the messaging of the acrostic and the main text is one of reinforcement: both resignation letters already registered their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration. I mean, they’re resignation letters. What’s more, the letters, while addressed to a single recipient, were disseminated widely and publicly by their authors. If we think of these acrostics as failed sneaky attempts to register dangerous dissent against the current administration, we are the inane ones.
Some acrostics, in fact, I would argue, every acrostic I’ve discussed so far, is meant to be found: the alphabetic acrostics were long and a robust enough genre to be easily recognizable, while the Babylonian acrostics signaled their presence within the main text by repeating identical cuneiform signs. Schwarznegger’s representative’s response, “My Goodness. What a coincidence.” might as well be punctuated with a final “/s”
Acrostics again show up in a religious context in the early Christian era, and again perform a sort of magico-religious form of praise. The eighth book of the Sybilline oracles, for example, encodes a reference, in Greek, to Jesus that seems intended to glorify Christ. This acrostic is not as easy to decode as the religious examples above, however: it actually spells out ἰχθύς—the Greek word for fish, but is also an acronym for iêsous chreistos theou uios sôtêr stauros (“Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, Cross”). And that’s why people have Jesus fish on their cars.
This combination of both acrostic and acronym points to the fact that this puzzle was encoded in an era in which to be “outed” as Christian was to risk death or torture. It’s doubtful that just anyone was intended to be able to understand this hidden code. Rather, this is a type of acrostic that is meant to be undiscovered by most—found only by those “in the know” who had been initiated into Christianity.
Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor for Eidolon, a public-facing journal that aims to make the Classics political and personal, feminist and fun. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.