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The History and Art of Mnemonics

Defined in broad terms, a mnemonic is a device, procedure, or operation that is used to improve memory. Defined in narrow terms — and what is usually meant by the word — a mnemonic is a specific reconstruction of target content intended to tie new information more closely to the learner’s existing knowledge base and, therefore, facilitate retrieval.

The historical development of mnemonics and mnemonic devices begins with a poet named Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. Simonides, as the tale has it, was hired to recite an ode at a nobleman’s banquet. In the fashion of the time, the poet began with a few lines in praise of divinities — in this case, Castor and Pollux — before going on to the serious business of talking about his host. The host, however, objected to this diversion of the flattery, deducted half of Simonides’ fee, and told the poet he could seek the rest from the gods he had praised. Shortly thereafter, a message was brought to the poet that two young men had come to the door of the house and wished to speak to him. When Simonides went to see them, there was no one there — but in his absence the banquet hall collapsed behind him, killing the impious nobleman and all the dinner guests as well. Castor and Pollux, traditionally imaged as two young men, had indeed paid their half of the fee.

Tales of this sort were commonplace in Greek literature, but this one has an unexpected moral. When the rubble was cleared away, the victims were found to be so mangled that their own families could not identify them. Simonides, however, remembered the places they had been sitting and so was able to identify the dead. Such was the discovery of the method of loci (or locations). It became so much a part of the study of rhetoric that the most venerable of the Roman orators used the method of loci for memorizing their speeches. Their procedure was as follows: First, a series of locations (loci), such as those in a public building, were memorized. Second, some object was thought of to represent each important part of the oration, such as a spear to represent the tenth topic, war. Third, the image created for each topic was combined with the image of its corresponding location. The spear might be imaged as penetrating the tenth locus, a door. While making his speech, the orator thought of each location in turn and used the image seen in his mind’s eye as the prompt for the next part of his address. After a few days, the images from the speech would fade from memory, but the more highly learned loci could be used to memorize a new speech.

There are a variety of mnemonic techniques, including keywords, pegwords, acronyms, loci methods, spelling mnemonics, phonetic mnemonics, number-sound mnemonics, and Japanese “Yodai” methods.


An acronym is a word that is made up by taking the first letter from each word that you want to remember and making a new word from all those letters. For example, if you want to remember the names of the Great Lakes of North America, you could learn the acronym HOMES — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Below are several more examples.

BEDMAS: Brackets, Exponents, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction — Sequence in which you should tackle any math problem with multiple calculations.

BRASS: Breath, Relax, Aim, Sight, Squeeze — How to shoot a rifle.

FACE: The letters of the treble clef notes in the spaces from bottom to top spells “FACE”.

FAN BOYS: Use a comma between two independent clauses separated by one of the “FAN BOYS” (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So).

FOIL: F stands for first terms; O stands for outer terms; I stands for inner terms and L stands for last terms. — The steps involved in factoring algebra problems.

IPMAT: Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase — The stages of cell division.

MET DR THIP: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus and Phoebe — Saturn’s moons

NEWS: North, East, West, South — The points of the compass.

PEN: Proton, Electron, Neutron — The parts of an atom.

ROY G. BIV: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet — Colors of the spectrum.

STAB: Soprano, Tenor, Alto, and Bass — Four voices in a quartet.


Acrostics support recall by creating an entire sentence with the first letter of each word being the prompt for the to-be-recalled information. For example, the planets in the order from the sun correspond to the first letter of each word in the sentence “my very educated mother just sent us nine pizzas.” Below are several more examples.

Blood’s functions:
Old Charlie Foster Hates Women Having Dull Clothes
Oxygen (transport), carbon dioxide (transport), food, heat, waste, hormones, disease, clotting

Bones of the skull:
Old People From Texas Eat Spiders
Occipital, parietal, frontal, temporal, ethmoid, sphenoid

British rank order below Kings and Queens:
Do Men Ever Visit Britain?
Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron

Eat An Aspirin After A Nighttime Snack (NOTE: The 2nd letter in the first three “A” words help to remember the “A” continents)
Europe, Antarctica, Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, South America

Cranial nerves:
On Old Olympus Towering Tops, A Finn And German Viewed Some Hops
Olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, acoustic, glossopharyngeal, vagus, spinal accessory, hypoglossal

Cranial nerves (function):
(1st letter) S=sensory, M=motor, B=both
Some Say Marry Money But My Brother Says Bad Boys Marry Money

Directions of the compass:
Never Eat Sour Watermelons
North, East, South, West

Geological ages:
Practically Every Old Man Plays Poker Regularly
Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Recent

Great Lakes in order of size:
Sam’s Horse Must Eat Oats
Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, Ontario

Guitar strings:
Eat All Dead Gophers Before Easter
E, A, D, G, B, E

Jupiter’s moons:
An Icecube Ever Grows Colder
Amalthea, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto

I Am A Person
Indian, Arctic, Atlantic, Pacific

Metric system in order:
King Henry Drinks Much Dark Chocolate Milk
Kilometer, hectometer, decameter, meter, decimeter, centimeter, millimeter

Neptune’s moons:
Neptune’s Tiny Dancing Girls Look Pretty To-Night
Naiad, Thalassa, Despina , Galatea, Larissa , Proteus, Triton, Nereid

New Testament order:
General Electric Power Company
Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians

Rainbow colors:
Richard Of York Got Bugged In Venice
Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet

Taxonomic classification system of living organisms:
King Philip Can Only Find his Green Slippers
Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

Taxonomic classification for humans:
Anthroplogy Can Make People Hate Helping the Sick
Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primates, Hominidae, Homo Sapiens

Seven deadly sins:
All Private College Leave Serious Educational Gaps
Anger, pride, covetousness, lust, sloth, envy, greed

Seven wonders of the Ancient World:
Seems Like MataHari Picked Her Targets Carefully
Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Lighthouse of Alexandria, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Colossus of Rhodes

Zodiac constellations:
As The Great Cook Likes Very Little Salt, She Compensates Adding Pepper
Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces


Spelling mnemonics are intended to help us remember the spelling of words. In order to remember that the word “cemetery” is spelled with three e’s, for example, one can picture a lady screaming ‘e-e-e’ as she walks past the cemetery. Below are several more examples.

Use the word RAVEN to remember when to use “affect” versus “effect”.
R emember
A ffect
V erb
E ffect
N oun

Argument or arguement? I lost an ‘e’ in an argument.

Use first letter of each word: A Rat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream

When you ascertain a fact, be AS CERTAIN as you possibly can.

Use first letter of each word: Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants

Triple compound: oo kk ee

Remember that a desert is Sandy; dessert has two s’s in it, like Strawberry Shortcake or Sweet Stuff.

Use first letter of each word: George’s Elderly Old Grandfather Rode A Pig Home Yesterday.

You HEAR with your EAR.

IN NO CENTury is murder an innocent crime.

Say to yourself “M I double S, I double S, I double P, I”.

Use first letter of each word: Mnemonics Now Erase Man’s Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage

Use first letter of each word: Never Eat Crisps, Eat Salad Sandwiches, And Remain Young!

Use first letter of each word: Only Cats’ Eyes Are Narrow

Remember one tea, two sugars.

Your princiPAL is your PAL; A ruLE can be called a principLE (both end in -le).

Use first letter of each word: Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move

A sculPTURE is a kind of piCTURE

There was a farmer named Sep and one day his wife saw a rat. She yelled, “Sep! A rat – E!!!”

Slaughter is LAUGHTER with an S at the beginning.

Remember how to spell “together” by noting that if you GET HER, you’ll be “together.”


The purpose of number-sound mnemonics is to recall strings of numbers, such as telephone numbers, addresses, locker combinations or historical dates. To use them, learners must first learn the number-sound relationships:

6=sh, ch, or soft g,
7=k, hard c, or hard g;
8=f or v; and

To remember the date 1439, for example, the learner uses the associated consonant sounds, t, r, m and p, and will insert vowels to create a meaningful word or words. In this case, the word “tramp” can be used.