Word Archaeology: abecedarius

An abecedarius is an acrostic in which the first letter of every word or verse follows the order of letters in the alphabet, such as:

“Angels on the head of a pin,
Behold, the shining beacon,
Come to lead us onward.”


It’s derived from the late Latin word “abecedarius” or “alphabetical.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word was first used in 1796. However, the writing form has existed for centuries, showing up in ancient texts such as the Bible:

Great are the works of the Lord;
    they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are his deeds,

    and his righteousness endures forever.
He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
    the Lord is gracious and compassionate.
He provides food for those who fear him;
    he remembers his covenant forever.

– Psalm 111

Geoffrey Chaucer, in his “ABC”, also adopted the form using Old English. In this case, each strophe of the poem begins with a letter in alphabetical order:

Almighty and al merciable queene,
To whom that al this world fleeth for socour,
To have relees of sinne, of sorwe, and teene,
Glorious virgine, of alle floures flour,
To thee I flee, confounded in errour.
Help and releeve, thou mighti debonayre,
Have mercy on my perilous langour.
Venquisshed me hath my cruel adversaire.

Bountee so fix hath in thin herte his tente
That wel I wot thou wolt my socour bee;
Thou canst not warne him that with good entente
Axeth thin helpe, thin herte is ay so free.
Thou art largesse of pleyn felicitee,
Haven of refut, of quiete, and of reste.
Loo, how that theeves sevene chasen mee.
Help, lady bright, er that my ship tobreste.

Comfort is noon but in yow, ladi deere;
For loo, my sinne and my confusioun,
Which oughten not in thi presence appeere,
Han take on me a greevous accioun
Of verrey right and desperacioun;
And as hi right thei mighten wel susteene
That I were wurthi my dampnacioun,
Nere merci of you, blisful hevene queene.


Alaric Alexander Watts wrote an abecedarius called “The Siege of Belgrade”:

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.

Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray!
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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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