Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mnemonics, from Roy G. Biv to Mary's Violet Eyes

Earlier this week in the Book Nook section of our Educators page, we featured an excerpt from Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher's Learning Words Inside and Out, all about how teachers can use mnemonics to help students commit words to memory. Some of these memory aids are extremely well-known: most everyone knows Roy G. Biv spells out the initial letters of the seven colors in the spectrum, for instance. But there's an endless number of other mnemonic devices that get passed down from generation to generation, covering just about every field of human endeavor.

Some mnemonics are simple rhymes, like "Thirty days hath September..." or "I before E, except after C..." Others are acronyms to help you remember the spelling of tricky words: if you have trouble spelling rhythm, just remember the first letters of Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move. There are also acronyms that expand to create a sentence encapsulating a rule; thus, OILRIG is a handy mnemonic in chemistry to remember that Oxidation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain (meaning that oxidation results in the loss of electrons, while reduction results in the gain of electrons.)

Many mnemonic devices are acronyms to help you remember items on a list. When the list isn't in any set order, it allows for more freedom in creating a mnemonic: for instance, HOMES helps you remember the names of the Great Lakes, even though there's no signficance to the order of Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Most of these mnemonics, however, have a particular order to memorize, as in Roy G. Biv for the colors of the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Who is Roy G. Biv, anyway? I've read that he's supposed to be a leprechaun who spells out the rainbow, but to me he sounds more like a mild-mannered accountant. I personally prefer reading the mnemonic the other way around, as Vibgyor, which you could imagine as the name of a rampaging warrior. VIBGYOR! (And sure enough, now that I look, a writer named Walter Herries Pollock wrote a story way back in 1874 featuring a cruel Prince Vibgyor.)

When the list doesn't lend itself to an acronymic reading, it can instead be treated as an acrostic, with the initial letters of the listed items corresponding to initial letters of words in a mnemonic phrase. Thus, instead of Roy G. Biv, you can use "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain." (That mnemonic has a bonus feature: it tells you who lost the Battle of Wakefield, waged in 1460 between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses.) The longer the order, the more involved the acrostic gets. Say you're hoping to commit to memory the order of geological time periods: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Recent. You're going to need something like, "Cows Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Persistent Early Oiling Might Prevent Painful Rheumatism." It's so long you might need a mnemonic for your mnemonic!

The order of the planets in the solar system is a classic list in need of a good mnemonic. Before the discovery of Pluto in 1930, a popular mnemonic was "Mary's Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights" (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Then when Pluto was added to the roster, nine-planet mnemonics arose like "My Very Excellent (or Educated, or Extravagant, or Energetic) Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas (or Parrots, or Pickles, or Pies)." After Pluto was heartlessly demoted from planethood in 2006, science educators had to get rid of the "Pizzas," instead opting for mnemonics like "My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Noodles." In the Pluto-less lineup, I'd recommend going back to the "Mary's Violet Eyes" golden oldie, which has a wistful, haunting quality to it.

What's your favorite mnemonic? Have you created any yourself? Let us know in the comments below! I'll start the ball rolling with one that I made in high school biology class to memorize the stages of fetal development (zygote, blastula, gastrula, embryo, fetus): "Zbigniew Brzezinski Goosed Ella Fitzgerald." I thought I was terribly clever, though my classmates didn't seem to think so. Still, I know I'm going to remember that mnemonic to my dying day.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 24th 2009, 1:25 AM
Comment by: Josefina B.
I'm sharing this with my nieces and nephews who seem to be endlessly memorizing from their reviewers during periodical exams. I am totally against rote memorization, but what I do with the Bible verses for example is that I make a tune and sing them so I won't forget. If I can hear it, I won't forget it. Does that qualify as a mnemonic device? In my highschool days there was this girl group called "Maherero Bovigama" The first word stands for the first two letters of the first names of the four girls, and the last word stands for the first two letters of their last names. Up to now, I remember their full names.
Friday July 24th 2009, 2:22 AM
Comment by: Marian W. (Fareham United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
"All Happy Oogles Have One Arm". My friend and I developed this mnemonic for remembering trigonometry formulae. You also have to know to put cosine, sine and tangent in alphabestical order. Then it's cos = a/h; sin = o/h; tan = o/a.
Friday July 24th 2009, 6:21 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Josefina, I guess the names of the girl group were (approximately):

Mary Booker
Helen Visconti
Renee Gambetta
Rosie May

This proves that mnemonics work (approximately) even when you never learned what they stood for!
Friday July 24th 2009, 7:02 AM
Comment by: Abigail W.
FACE = notes of the spaces on a treble cleff,

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge = notes of the lines on a treble cleff

Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always = ditto but for bass cleff

?? for the spaces on a bass cleff
Friday July 24th 2009, 8:11 AM
Comment by: Suroor A.
I use images to remember things--it works especially well for lists. Here's how: You start by ascribing an object to letters in the alphabet, preferably something obvious--a for apple, etc. Then you connect the thing to the image. For example, (and this was the example in the book and I still remember it, 30-odd years on!) you have a to-do list and the first thing is buy tickets for the cinema. Imagine a cinema full of apples watching a film. The funnier and weirder the image, the easier to remember. The system, Memorex, was quite popular in the 70s.
Friday July 24th 2009, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Just tried to vote and the site wouldn't let me. Wanted to vote for Word Routes...Anyone else having a problem voting? Is it me?! HA!
Friday July 24th 2009, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Just for the record, I thought "Zbigniew Brzezinski Goosed Ella Fitzgerald." was very witty. Your classmates must have been Philistines to miss the layers of humor involved — the Russian name, which all by itself is laughably convoluted; the vulgar idea of a Russian potentate goosing another person; the truly jocund mental picture raised by the idea that Ella Fitzgerald was the person being goosed....

BTW, I use, "A Rat In Tom's House Might Eat Tom's Ice Cream" to spell "arithmetic" to this day.
Friday July 24th 2009, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Don: Thanks for the kind words about my mnemonic. But just for the record, Mr. Brzezinski's not a Russian potentate, just a Polish-American political scientist (and Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor).
Friday July 24th 2009, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Gregory R. (Eau Claire, WI)
From junior high school days (more than 50 years ago), I remember that "Washington and Jefferson made many a joke" is a clue to the names of the first seven U.S. presidents.
Friday July 24th 2009, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Anthony C.

The Treble Clef - Same as G clef (violin clef).

LINES - Every Good Boy Does Fine.
SPACES - FACE (old standby-been around since Beethoven).

The Bass Clef - same as F clef (lower staff of piano music).

LINES - Good Boys Don't Fool Around.
SPACES - My version of your question - ACEG
" An ACE is a Good card to hold."
--- -
These mnemonics got me through Sister Roseanna's music class.
Friday July 24th 2009, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
For the bass clef spaces we learned All Cows Eat Grass.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 8:28 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
When I try to help my first-grade science students remember that cirrus clouds are higher than cumulus clouds, and cumulus clouds are higher than stratus clouds, I use this mnemonic I made up.

"Think of the word CIRCUS." CIR is for CIRRUS, CU is for CUMULUS, and S is for STRATUS."

I admit the mnemonic may be a bit clumsy but it always works for the kids!

Also, I correspond from time to time with Carolyn Andrews who works for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I came up with this mnemonic to remember the spelling of WARISON, which is defined as a call to battle. Break up the word into WAR IS ON! Carolyn loved it!
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
Very good article, 5 stars for sure.

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Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher explain how teachers can use mnemonics in the classroom.
After downgrading Pluto, the International Astronomical Union decided to call the ex-planet a "plutoid."