What Is an Acrostic?

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An acrostic is a series of lines in which certain letters—usually the first in each line—forms a name or a message when read in sequence.

A memory device as well as a type of verbal play, the acrostic has been a popular form of entertainment for over 2,500 years. Acrostic derives from the Greek words "end" + "line."

Examples of Acrostics

The following are examples of Acrostics (follow the bold letters).

Acrostic ACROSTIC:

  • are playful
  • contrivances of prose or verse
  • rendered so that each line
  • opens or closes with words in
  • sequence to read from
  • top to bottom, their
  • initial or final letters
  • constituting a word or phrase.

Acrostics as Mnemonic Devices

"Acrostic mnemonics are sentences in which the first letter of each word is the first letter of one of the things you need to remember...Acrostics are especially useful for long lists of things whose names don't begin with vowels. A famous acrostic for the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto is 'My very energetic mother just served us nine pizzas,' which can be replaced by 'My very evil mother just served us newts,' should you agree with the 2006 reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet rather than a full-fledged one."

Double Acrostics

A double acrostic spells something out with the first and last letters. For example:

  • Unite and untie are the same—so say you.
  • Not in wedlock, I ween, has the unity been.
  • In the drama of marriage, each wandering gout
  • To a new face would fly—all except you and I
  • Each seeking to alter the spell in their scene.

John Keats's Acrostic

  • Give me your patience, sister, while I frame
  • Exact in capitals your golden name;
  • Or sue the fair Apollo and he will
  • Rouse from his heavy slumber and instill
  • Great love in me for thee and Poesy.
  • Imagine not that greatest mastery
  • And kingdom over all the Realms of verse,
  • Nears more to heaven in aught, than when we nurse
  • And surety gives to love and Brotherhood.

A Biblical Acrostic

"A third key rhetorical feature in Lamentations [a book of the Hebrew Bible] is the acrostic that structures four of the five poems (Lam 1-4)...Several purposes have been offered to explain the use of acrostics, including fulfilling magical rites, aiding memorization of poems, emphasizing completeness, or producing aesthetically pleasing literature (Westermann, 98-100; O'Connor). Although there may be multiple purposes behind the use of acrostics, most likely they communicate that the poem expresses totality, and in the case of Lamentations both the total devastating effect of the destruction and the total expression of the pain of those who experienced it."

Sources

  • Anonymous, "Double Acrostic"
  • Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, ed. by Tremper Longman and Peter Enns. InterVarsity Press, 2008
  • Evans, Rod L., Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: The Book of Mnemonic Devices. Penguin, 2007
  • Halley, Ned, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005
  • Keats, John, "Georgiana Augusta Keats"