A number of years ago there was a politician in California who was competent in most ways, but he had a serious liability for anyone in his profession: he had trouble remembering names. Influential citizens and donors — especially donors — like to think they’re on a first-name basis with the governor, and a blank stare shatters that illusion. An aide to this particular politician urged his boss to use this helpful memory aid: “When you’re introduced to someone, imagine that they just gave you a hundred-thousand bucks.”
We all use tricks like that in an effort to memorize stuff. The fancy term for these memory aids is mnemonic devices (pronounced Neh-MON-ic). Not that I knew that when I was six or seven years old and was learning to read music. My piano teacher taught me that the lines on the treble clef (E-G-B-D-F) could be remembered by the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. My piano playing demonstrated that was nonsense; I didn’t do fine at all. Or maybe I was deluding myself that I was a good boy. The spaces on the treble clef, by the way, spell FACE.
Another early memory aid was A Rat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream, which helped me remember how to spell arithmetic. A few years later, I correctly answered a test question about the names of the Great Lakes by remembering HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). I still recall the names of U.S. presidents #9 through 15 by splitting those names into groups of three and making the middle name in each group a violent verb: Tyler -POKE (Polk) – Taylor; Fillmore – PIERCE – Buchanan. For adolescent boys it was a fun way to learn, especially if there was a classmate nearby to poke and pierce with an elbow or fist while reciting the list.
My wife Sally was taught a mnemonic device by her father that he probably learned from his. It was a bit of doggerel that helped her remember the north-south streets in downtown Los Angeles, when traveling in a westerly direction: “From MAIN we SPRING to BROADWAY and over the HILL to OLIVE. Wouldn’t it be GRAND if we could HOPE to pick a FLOWER on FIGUEROA?” Now that there’s MapQuest and GPS, you would think she could safely erase that from her memory bank, but no — it’s stuck there forever.
Similarly, I can’t banish the mnemonic “Do men ever visit Boston?” from my brain. It helps me remember something that is utterly useless to me: the ranking order of the British peerage. There’s absolutely no reason for me to need to know that, in descending order, it’s Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron. It’s not like I’m rubbing elbows with peers of the realm on a daily basis, remembering to call a duke “Your Grace”, but only greeting an earl with “My Lord”.
That’s the value of a good mnemonic device, of course. No matter how inconsequential the facts it helps you retain — you’re simply not going to forget them. What about you? What mnemonic device is permanently imbedded in your cerebral cortex? Also, do you have one that will help me spell mnemonic without looking it up?