What are mnemonics?

Mnemonics – memory devices of one sort or another

Using mnemonics is one of the most effective ways for you to improve your memory. In fact, one of the most important aspects of improving your memory is becoming adept at making strange and unusual connections between things. This tends to make them easier to remember. It’s also the heart and soul of mnemonics.

So just exactly what are mnemonics?

Well, if you’re not familiar with the term, a mnemonic is any kind of memory device that helps you remember a particular thing, and naturally, just the act of using these techniques helps improve your memory.

They can consist of silly rhymes, snatches of a song, even just a few words that link in some bizarre way. Most of them are pretty silly (or at least appear to be), and that’s the very thing that makes them effective and easy to remember. And of course if the mnemonic itself isn’t memorable, what’s the point of it?

Mnemonic techniques

A mnemonic needs to be easily memorable, and so it should be entertaining, or strange, or out of the ordinary in some way. A dry-as-dust list isn’t memorable, and that’s the problem – it’s just a list. A mnemonic, on the other hand, can be bright and colourful, or it might involve strange or unusual links between things, or imaginary situations that are just downright silly.

You can use mnemonics to help you remember important or useful facts, data that’s important for your work (such as client or product details), facts and dates for exams, and lots of other things. The more you practice using mnemonic memory techniques, or coming up with mnemonics of your own, the easier it becomes, and so they become even more useful.

With practice you can become a real mnemonic expert! You do it almost without thinking, and you get involved in the whole mnemonic world of weirdness and creativity that makes memory improvement a bit of a game, and an enjoyable one. And when something is fun, it automatically becomes easier.

Examples of mnemonics

Here’s a few examples of mnemonics that I’ve used or come across recently. There’s one amongst them that I’ve made up as well. And that’s an important point – you should try making some up yourself, and the ones you make up will probably be the most effective. Because you worked on them, even if it was only for a minute or two, they tend to be that much easier to recall.

Colours of the spectrum

Use mnemonics to remember lists and factsYou probably learned this one at school – it’s a mnemonic to help you remember the colours of the spectrum, in order. Which are …

red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

or … Roy grew bored in Venice, or Roy grew big in Venice (Roy=Red, Orange, Yellow)
or … red or yellow gas bubbles in Vaseline

(Note: many scientists no longer consider Indigo to be a part of the spectrum)

So, for the six-colour spectrum (R O Y G B I), how about:

Rainbows Over Your Great Big Island

Chartwell – Churchill’s country home

Chartwell - use mnemonics to remember details like this name

Chartwell – former home of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader

Imagine Churchill poring intently over an outspread chart, then rolling it up and stuffing it down a well, outside a magnificent country house.

I just came up with that this morning because there was a question on a TV quiz show about Churchill’s country home and I couldn’t recall its name. When it came to me later, I made up a mnemonic so I won’t forget it again.

An important aspect of many memory devices is to create a vivid image and actually see it, even if only for a few moments. Images are much more likely to ‘stick’ in your mind than words or figures. And take a few moments to really make it vivid.

Let’s get back to that image – Churchill staring at his chart. See Churchill’s cigar ash falling onto the chart and him blowing it away or shaking it off the chart, or even flicking it off carefully. Details like that really create mental connections. Maybe he leans forward and his bowler falls off and as he reaches for it, the chart starts to crumple and blow away. He has to struggle to get it and fold it, or roll it up. How quickly your mind can create some little scene like this, and how well it will recall it later.

And maybe the chart is of war torn Europe and he is working out a battle plan (which he then decides he must keep hidden in the well). Isn’t it interesting how your mind can come up with these things? This curiosity and inventiveness is really right in there with the way your mind, and your memory, naturally works. Anyway, on with examples of mnemonics:

Stalactites and stalagmites

A cave with both stalactites and stalagmites - use mnemonics to remember which is which

A cave with both stalactites and stalagmites

These are formed from water dripping from the ceiling of a cave and leaving microscopic amounts of minerals behind. Some hang down from the ceiling as deposits build up there, while others grow up from the floor. The growth process is very, very slow and gradual, and depends on the mineral content of the water, and the speed of the flow. Given time, the two can sometimes meet and form a single column.

Without a mnemonic, memory improvement can appear to be as slow as the growth of stalactites and stalagmites! But using a mnemonic technique, the process can be accelerated easily.

Actually, it’s easy to remember which is which once you realise that stalaGmites grow up from the Ground, while stalaCtites hang down from the Ceiling. Or just use the old favourite – remember that ‘tights come down’!

Mnemonics for camels

camels - use mnemonics to tell the difference

Two kinds of camel, a Bactrian and a dromedary … but which is which? Mmm … let me think … don’t tell me, I’m sure I know this one …

There are two types of camel, the bactrian and the dromedary. It’s easy to recall which is which: The Bactrian (very conveniently) has two humps (visualise an upper case ‘B’ flipped over on its side), and a Dromedary has only one (see a ‘D’ lying on its side).

The picture on the right shows a dromedary and a bactrian camel, and it’s pretty clear which is which. And very thoughtful of Nature to spell it out in such an obvious way, don’t you think?

Great Lakes mnemonics

There are plenty of Great Lakes mnemonics, but the simplest one I’ve ever come across is


Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior

Followed closely by:

Sergeant Major Hates Eating Onions

More mnemonics

Check out these links for more mnemonic information (and fun!):

See this page for more examples of mnemonics.

A very cleverly constructed mnemonic for the Signs of the Zodiac.

Stop guessing or working out how many days in the month – there’s a simple mnemonic to help you know in an instant!

I can’t shift you from a poor speller to an ace speller, but there are spelling mnemonics to help you with some troublesome words, the kind that people often spell wrong, or mistake for a similar word. If you could do with a bit of help with your spelling, get yourself on over to Spelling Tips 1, or Spelling Tips 2, two pages with some useful information on the subject.

The Geological Periods (those time frames with obscure and ‘complicated’ names that cover millions of years) can be awkward to remember. Unless, of course, you use a mnemonic!

Can you remember what became of Henry VIII’s wives (no, they weren’t all beheaded!)? A simple, six-word mnemonic could help you remember their fates. Now all you have to do is remember them in order! (yeah, of course there’a a mnemonic for that, there’s one for everything!)

And can you put all the British monarchs since 1066 in order? Is it even possible, for anyone except an expert historian? Yep, if you take the time to learn a clever little poem. And once you’ve done that, and got them in order, it’s that much easier to learn some facts about each one and start to put some meat on the bones that is the bare list of names.

Yes, history can indeed come alive, and you might just surprise yourself how much you can commit to memory, and how fast.


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