Mnemonics keep tricky concepts in mind—and delight writers

You may not be called on to recite the spectrum of visible light or geological periods, but what wordsmith can resist wacky mnemonics like the one that begins, “Cows Often Sit Down Carefully…”?

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

Or is it Fudge Does Every Boy Good?

Something like that.

Anyway, BuzzFeed recently reminded us—we’d forgotten—about the old art of mnemonics, or patterns of letters, ideas, or associations that aid in remembering concepts, be they the notes on the treble clef lines or the classification of the planets. (Oh, right: The notes are E, G, B, D, and F, making it Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.)

The Buzzards trotted out some oldies, such as the musical notes, along with less familiar ones, at least to those of us who spent our youth feeding our arithmetic homework to the dog. Just so you know, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally reminds one the order of operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. Whatever that is. (Also, arithmetic = A Rat In The House Might Eat The Ice Cream.)

BuzzFeed also served up these:

  • A hand gesture guaranteed to make you not only “the coolest kid ever to walk in a physics class,” but also the guy who remembers the rules of electromagnetics.

  • A trick for recalling multiples of 9 (except that it confused us).

  • An acronym for the names of the Great Lakes, which surely will help us Ragan Communications staffers when we stare vacantly at the body of water near our Chicago headquarters and mutter, “I can never remember; is that one Lake Michigan? Or Lake Superior?”

  • A pizza-related mnemonic for the order of the planets.

Inspired, we at sent out a flurry of requests in social media and Help a Reporter Out, seeking further examples. Because we subsequently forgot most of our passwords, we don’t know whether anybody replied on several platforms. (Wife’s birthday + 123? Nope. Kids’ names + childhood address? No…)

One website offers what it calls a mnemonic calculator, affording me the opportunity to see if there’s a way I can remember the name of our CEO, Mark Ragan. This was one of its suggestions: Moral Armadillos Reach Kind Recipes And Giraffes Add Novels. Well, if you say so.

Playing chess on fancy green spaces

Facebook did yield a contribution from corporate communications pro Angela Clayton Schmidt, who threw a lifeline to forgetful biologists. Kings Play Chess On Fancy Green Spaces help you remember kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Promisingly, Chicago Tribune writer John Keilman said he has “a really dirty one that has allowed me to remember” the same classifications since eighth grade, but he neglected to tell us what it is.

The Internet—the greatest mnemonic machine ever invented—proved that silly memory prompts are a matter of urgent interest worldwide.

Stumped when trying to remember the order of geological time periods? Us, too. “Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Recent” is a lot to pull out of a foggy mind before coffee in the morning.

Spark your memory with Cows Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Persistent Early Oiling Might Prevent Painful Rheumatism. In an article that offers this suggestion, Lisa A. Rossbacher a geologist and university president, wrote about asking students for their own mnemonic suggestions. Bad idea.

“Not only could I not share most of the submissions with the other students, but a few made me blush,” she writes.

Keilman, is that you snickering in the back of the classroom?


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