Mnemonic Devices


Mnemonic devices are tricks and techniques used as aids in memorization.

As James Burke presented it in "The Day the Universe Changed", before Gutenberg and his printing press got us into the habit of looking everything up in a book, we used to have to memorize almost everything we knew. Long apprenticeships were needed not just to learn and practice the skills, but also to memorize all the knowledge that went with those skills. Study at the ancient academies involved the memorization of the literature, somewhat akin to our trying to memorize an encyclopedia (memorizing an entire book would be trivial in comparison)1. Even in the present day, some professions require the memorization of large bodies of knowledge; eg, physicians needing to memorize anatomy (eg, the cranial nerves in order) and police officers needing to memorize all the laws that they are going to need to enforce (when a police officer moves to another state, he then needs to memorize the laws of that state).

As a result, a wide variety of tricks have been devised through the ages to aid in the task of memorizing everything. Souvenirs and commemorative items (eg, coins, medallions, knives) had the very real and useful purpose of associating the event or place with the object so that viewing or handling the object would aid in recalling the associated event or place. Similarly, with ritual we remember a complete procedure exactly and in the right sequence -- ranging from full-blown ceremonies to our daily getting-up and getting-ready-to-face-the-world preparations that must not be varied lest we forget something 2.

Rhymes and songs are incredibly useful for remembering a large quantity of words in an exact order. After several years and even decades, we can still remember the words to poems and songs. According to Burke, medieval news was spread by minstrel songs which, once heard, were immediately memorized and members of the audience could then sing them to others thus spreading the news rapidly.

And Burke's assessment of the elaborate artwork in the Catholic churches was that it wasn't art, but rather it was learning! The artwork would depict the stories and lessons that the illiterate congregation had been taught, thus triggering the congregants' memory to recount those stories and lessons to themselves. In contrast, Protestantism arose and spread with the printing press -- its very origin and spread is credited to someone having set Martin Luther's 95 Theses to type and distributed hundreds of copies thus turning a local protest into a continent-wide revolution. One of the first works commissioned for printing was the Bible, so Protestantism tended to base itself much more on the individual members reading Scripture themselves -- one of the early functions of Sunday School was to teach everybody, adults and children alike, how to read. As a result, Protestant churches tended to be much plainer and devoid of graphic art. They didn't need those mnemonic devices as much because they had the printed word to refer back to.

Even though we no longer need to memorize on the vast scale that we used to, there are still some things that we want to commit to memory. In keeping with the greatly reduced scale of our memorization needs, the variety of mnemonic devices available to us has also reduced and many have been lost, though they could be reinvented if necessary, I am sure. For the most part, we only use a few rhymes and several catch-phrases any more. It is these catch-phrases that I have decided to collect here.


1 In the Talmudic literature, we have the Pirke Avoth ("Sayings of the Fathers" -- if you ever watched the movie, "Yentl", you heard her quote several of them; eg, "The more learning the more life.").

There is one semi-famous story from c. 20 BCE about a gentile who went from one Jewish academy to another challenging the head rabbi to recite "the whole of the Law while standing on one foot." Now, "the Law" was the Torah, the Pentatuach, the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament. Because of the scarcity and high expense of printed material, all of which had to be copied laboriously by hand, as well as the sacred nature of the scroll, the vast majority of students could not own their own copy of the Torah, but rather they had to memorize it along with all the other students -- similarly in european universities before the Guttenburg press, the students had to gather to listen to someone reading from the single copy of a book that the university had, which is why we still call that a "lecture" ("reading"). As a result, it could be considered reasonable to expect any experienced-enough member of a yeshiva to be able to recite from memory the entire Torah.

But to do so would still be a daunting task and to demand that they do so while standing on one foot is just plain ridiculous. Most rabbim dealt with that uppity gentile as he fully well deserved by chasing him off the property with a large stick. Notably, the response of the head rabbi of the Pharisees, Rabbi Hillel, was quite different:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this - go and study it!

This story has been repeated a number of times, most notably for our generation in the first season Star Trek:TOS episode, Dagger of the Mind written by S. bar David (a pseudonym of Shimon Wincelberg), but in which the rabbi became a "philosopher" being demanded to "recite all the world's wisdom while standing on one foot."


2 Two/three examples from the cinema and TV come immediately to mind that I feel demonstrate the role of ritual in memorization:

  1. In Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the children had developed an elaborate ritual retelling and re-enactment of the story of how they had arrived at that place and of their long wait to be rescued by Capt. Walker ("We ain't been slack, Captain Walker!"). This ensured that they would not only not forget the story, but that they also would be able to tell it completely and faithfully when their time came to tell it to the next generation as the teller admonishes them to do as per the ritual. The film's director uses that ritual effectively, first to introduce Max (and us) to the story of how they had gotten to that hidden canyon, and then at the end to how they were going to keep alive the history of how Max had delivered them to a new promised land:
    Time counts and keeps countin', and we knows now finding the trick of what's been and lost ain't no easy ride. But that's our trek, we gotta' travel it. And there ain't nobody knows where it's gonna' lead. Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from... but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there. 'Cause we knows there come a night, when they sees the distant light, and they'll be comin' home.

  2. In the opening of Dragonslayer, we see the old wizard preparing a potion, during which he mutters a number of incantations and makes a number of gestures in what seemed to be an absent-minded manner. That wasn't just superstition, but rather he was preparing that potion in exactly the way he had been taught, so that he wouldn't leave anything out. Making the incantations and gestures were sort of like running through a checklist -- indeed, running through a pre-operational checklist is a form of modern ritual for pilots and technicians which serves exactly the same purpose, though that ritual must always be performed mindfully.

Here is a short list of mnemonic devices that I have started compiling. I intend to add to the list as I find more.

Other such lists exist on-line.


Roy G Biv

The colors of the rainbow in the order of their appearance: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said that there are actually only six colors in the spectrum, but Newton inserted indigo because he wanted there to be seven colors -- some kind of numerological significance, apparently. For that matter, he could have added any number of intermediate colors between the other primary colors, since the rainbow is a continuous spectrum.


Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls.
Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly.

In electronics, the resistance value of resistors is marked by colored bands:
Color1st Band
(100s)
2nd Band
(10s)
3rd Band
(1s)
4th Band
(Multiplier)
Black0001 Ω
Brown10010110 Ω
Red200202100 Ω
Orange3003031 kΩ
Yellow40040410 kΩ
Green500505100 kΩ
Blue6006061 MΩ
Violet70070710 MΩ
Grey800808 
White900909 
So then a resistor marked with black, yellow, violet, and orange would have a value of 47 kΩ. A table explaining resistor color codes is at
http://www.elexp.com/t_resist.htm.

I had also encountered some older capacitors and other electronics components that also employed a similar color code.

I would also like to point out that the color codes for the digits 2 through 7 are the same colors in the same sequence as ROY G BIV above, though excluding indigo. That made it somewhat easier for me to memorize the color codes: "Black, brown, ROY G B(I)V, grey, white."


Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February alone:
Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,
Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.

How many of us don't chant some version of this one to ourselves whenever we need to figure out the date of the end of the month?


In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


Divorced, beheaded, died.
Divorced, beheaded, survived.

For remembering the fates of King Henry VIII's six wives.


A J Squared Away

This was taught in the US Navy DP school for memorizing the punch-card Hollerith codes for the alphabet:
A through I -- Numerics 1-9 respectively in Zone 12
J through R -- Numerics 1-9 respectively in Zone 11
S through Z -- Numerics 1-8 respectively in Zone 10
More information on punch cards has been compiled by Douglas W. Jones of the University of Iowa Department of Computer Science and can be found on his Punched Cards page. The codes themselves are discussed on his Punched Card Codes page.

Our school used an IBM S/370 mainframe, so I learned EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code). When I later learned Hollerith codes I immediately noticed that they were laid out very similarly if you take the first four bits of the character code to function like the Hollerith zone. That should come as no surprise since Herman Hollerith's 1898 company based on punch-card technology merged in 1911 with three other companies to form Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), which was later renamed to International Business Machines (IBM). For the first half of the 20th Century IBM dominated the data processing industry with its punch-card technology. After WWII, IBM resisted joining the new computer industry until a change of management in 1952.


ELI the ICE man --

Voltage (E) leads current (I) in an inductive (L) circuit.
Current (I) leads voltage (E) in a capacitive (C) circuit.


Easy as PIE.

In electrical theory, the formula for power is P = E * I , power equals voltage times current.


Flower Children Get Dumber After Every Bummer

In music theory, the order of sharps in a key signature: FCGDAEB.
The order of flats is simply reversed: BEADGCF.
The same patterns repeat themselves in the Circle of Fifths for both major and minor keys (see also here), such that you can read off the major key for a given key signature by going two to the right and the minor key by going five to the right (or two to the left) -- you can also work out the flats by working backwards on the Circle:
F C G D A E B
SharpsFlatsMajor KeyMinor Key
 B E A D G C FC-flata-flat
 B E A D G CG-flate-flat
 B E A D GD-flatb-flat
 B E A DA-flatf
 B E AE-flatc
 B EB-flatg
 BFd
  Ca
F Ge
F C Db
F C G Af#
F C G D Ec#
F C G D A Bg#
F C G D A E F#d#
F C G D A E B C#a#

Other versions I have encountered:

  • Fast cars get driven away, even Buicks
  • Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds.
  • Fat Cats Get Dandruff And Eat Beans
  • Fat Cats Get Drunk After Eating Beans.


Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (or, Every Good Boy Does Fine)
FACE
All Cows Eat Grass

In music theory, these represent respectively:
  • the notes of the treble (G) clef: the lines (EGBDF) and the spaces (FACE).
  • the spaces on the base clef: ACEG


The woman is always right and the guy gets left behind.

In every partner dance I've encountered so far, the man's first step is always with the left foot and the woman's with the right.

I also use this rule to keep straight which of the two drinks I'm carrying is mine and which is my wife's companion's.


Kick right in or be left outside.

This is one that I made up for a number of steps in Lindy where the couple both kick forward at the same time while facing each other in very close closed position; eg, flash kicks, a kicking turn in Charleston, cake walk. Needless to say, if you or your partner kick in the wrong place, a shin is going to get hit.

What this one means is that your right foot kicks between your partner's legs and your left foot on the outside. I haven't encountered any exceptions to this rule in Lindy. I also have not encountered these kinds of kicks in other dances, so I'm not sure it applies to them.

BTW, by following the basic rule of offsetting yourself from your partner a bit to your left while in closed position, these kicks tend to work themselves out naturally.


Programmers Do Not Throw Sausage Pizza Away

In computer networking, these are the seven layers of the OSI protocol stack, from the bottom up:
Physical, Data-link, Network, Transport, Session, Presentation, Application.


My very earnest mother just served us nine pickles
(or, My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas)
also recently contributed:
     Mark's violet eyes make Jane sit up nights pining.

The names of the planets in the Solar System, in order from the Sun out:
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto


Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.

In astronomy, the order of the spectral classes of stars in the Russel-Hertzsprung diagram: O, B, A, F, G, K, M.


Kids Pour Catshup Over Fat Green Spiders.
    also
Kindly Purchase Cookies Only from Girl Scouts
        (contributed)
    also
Kings Play Chess On Fine Grain Sand
        (contributed)

From biology, the Linnean classification system: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.


Cows often sit down carefully, perhaps their joints creak.

The geological ages:
  Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian Carboniferous Permian Triassic Jurassic Cretaceous


How Many New Airmen Will Get Sex Free?

As taught in US Air Force basic training, the organizational structure of the Air Force:
  • Headquarters, USAF
  • Major Air Command
  • Numbered Air Force
  • Wing
  • Group
  • Squadron
  • Flight


Be My Little General.

In the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, the ranks for general, in ascending order (one-star to four-star):
  1. Brigadier General
  2. Major General
  3. Lieutenant General
  4. General


Starboard is more to the right than port.
        (contributed)

Equating the letter "r" with "right", starboard with its two "r's" is more "right" than port is with but a single "r".

The basic rule is that starboard is to the right when you are facing the bow (front) of the vessel. It is important to note that you need to be standing on the vessel when applying this rule. I once got into an argument over this with a friend who insisted that I had it turned around. As it turned out, he was applying the rule while standing (mentally, of course) in front of the ship instead of on it.


Port wine is red.

A vessel's port running light is red and the starboard light is green.


The heart is on the left.
Blood is red and so is port wine.

This is a more complicated mnemonic for the previous two rules:
  • Port is to the left, the same side as the heart.
  • The port running light is red, the same as blood and port wine.
This one was taught to me by a friend's mother who had gotten it from her aunt. What amazed her about it was that her aunt, a staunch advocate of temperence, would even make reference to wine.

And, yes, I know that the heart isn't actually on the left; it's centered in the chest and beats more strongly to the left, which is why we feel it there. I plead poetic license here.


Face is red, raise the head.
Face is pale, raise the tail.

These are two rules of thumb in First Aid for deciding which end to elevate. The second one is for treating shock (the face is pale because the blood isn't getting to the head).

Be sure to first receive proper First Aid training before applying either of these rules. There's no substitute for knowledge and proper training. Basic rule of thumb for "Good Samaritan" laws: Never attempt anything that you have not been trained to do. IOW, if you don't know what you're doing then do not attempt it.


"Can I have a small container of coffee?"

This is a mnemonic for memorizing the first eight (8) digits of pi: 3.1415926 . Simply count the number of letters in each word. The WikiQuotes English mnemonics page (link broken) calls this practice "Piphilology".

I heard it the one night on an NPR program, "Says You" I think it was. One of the panelists commented, "Well of course, coffee does go well with pie."

I also found it at a Zimaths page which lists other such mnemonics for pi in several different languages (again, unfortunately, link broken). Two more in English are:

  • How I wish I could enumerate Pi easily, since all these horrible mnemonics prevent recalling any of pi's sequence more simply.
    and
  • How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy chapters involving quantum mechanics. One is, yes, adequate even enough to induce some fun and pleasure for an instant, miserably brief.
To 32 digits. Wow.

Also on that page with the broken link is a short story that gives the first 402 digits of pi.


Return to Top of Page
Return to DWise1's Home Page

Contact me.


Share and enjoy!

First uploaded on 2001 October 05.
Updated on 2018 September 07.