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.

Etymology

From the Greek, "end" + "line"

Examples and Observations:

  • Acrostics
    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.
    (Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005)
  • 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
    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."

    Pronunciation

    ah-KROS-tic

    Sources

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