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).

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 something1.

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 could thereafter be spread as the songs were sung to others.

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 congregant's memory to recount those stories and lessons to himself. In contrast, Protestantism arose and spread with the printing press and tended to base itself much more on the individual members reading Scripture themselves, so 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.

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.

1 Two examples from the cinema 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. 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.

  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.

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. One that I found, the WikiQuotes English mnemonics page, lists several variations of some that I list below.
Roy G Biv
The colors of the rainbow in the order of their appearance: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

In electronics, the resistor color codes also employ the same order for the values 2 through 7 (indigo has been removed). Four other colors are added: black and brown for the values 0 and 1 respectively and gray and white for 8 and 9 respectively. A table explaining resistor color codes is at

Bad Boys Run Over Yellow Gardenias Behind Victory Garden Walls.

Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly.

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.

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:
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
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)
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.
Kindly Purchase Cookies Only from Girl Scouts
Kings Play Chess On Fine Grain Sand
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.
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.

"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 calls this practice "Piphilology".

I heard it the other 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. 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.
  • 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.

Though I'll let you go to that page yourself to read the short story that gives the first 402 digits of pi.

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First uploaded on 2001 October 05.
Updated on 2011 August 18.