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What are Mnemonics

Mnemonic is a very general word. It is defined simply as some device which aids the memorisation of something. The word comes from the Greek mnemonikós, which refers to the mind.

These devices come in a variety of forms. One common sort is rhyme. The following reminds people of the number of days in each month of the year:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Excepting February alone:
Which hath but twenty-eight, in fine,
Till leap year gives it twenty-nine.

Many mnemonics also take the form of acronyms. To recall the spelling of the word mnemonic, say, you could memorise the following phrase:

Monkey Nut Eating Means Old Nutshells In Carpet.

Taking the initial letters of each word spells out MNEMONIC. Of course, if you find it harder to memorise the sentence than the spelling of the word directly then the mnemonic serves no useful purpose. However such sentences are often easier to learn, especially for words with tricky spellings.

There is a closely related mnemonic technique that also uses the initial letters of a phrase. This time they do not spell out a word, but each initial corresponds to a word beginning with the same letter. Such mnemonics are generally used to memorise the order of a list of items. For example, most people with even a passing interest in astronomy are familiar with the names of the planets in the Solar System: Earth, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Neptune, Pluto, Saturn, Uranus, and Venus. Far fewer though could confidently tell you the order of these planets (in average distance from the Sun). However, with a simple mnemonic such as the one below, recalling this can be very simple indeed:

My Very Easy Method: Just Set Up Nine Planets.

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

This kind of mnemonic breaks down somewhat when a letter is repeated. In the example above Mars and Mercury share an initial M and without being aware that Mercury was closer to the Sun than Mars the mnemonic alone would not help to distinguish.

All of the mnemonics with which this site is concerned fall into the categories mentioned thus far. However there are other families of mnemonic device, which, not being so word-related, do not belong on Fun-with-words.com. As an example we return to the months of the year mentioned in the opening paragraph. There is a visual method of recalling the number of days in each month, which, being a technique to aid the memory, also falls under the heading mnemonic. The method involves placing your two fists together with the thumbs tucked in and counting across the knuckles and spaces in between (but not counting the space between the hands). If each month is assigned to a knuckle or space in turn, each knuckle month has 31 days, whilst all of the space months have just 30 days; except of course for the anomalous February!

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