Afternoon Inquisition

Sunday AI: Pneumonic Mnemonics

It’s a curious feature of human memory that creating a nonsense sentence or name can help students remember a sequence.  “Roy G. Biv” is a well known mneumonic for remembering the order of light in the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).  When I was teaching introductory biology,  I had to get students to remember the order of the basic taxonomic classification scheme:

  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species
One common mnemonic for remembering this order is “Kindly Pay Cash Or Furnish Good Security.”  As a bonus on an exam, I often gave students a couple of free points if they could come up with a more interesting mnemonic. When I was moving last month, I discovered a collection of the most amusing answers:
  • Kennedy picked Catholicism over free group sects
  • Klingons play chess or fix great starships
  • Kicking people can often feel good sometimes
  • King Phillip came over for good sushi
What is your favorite mnemonic, and what does it help you remember?

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Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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47 Comments

  1. The first one I was ever taught at the age of five remains my favourite. It was for the word ‘because’.

    Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants.

    Taught by our classroom assistant who unknowingly helped me realise big words weren’t scary any more.

  2. They Might Be Giants edited a popular mnemonic for the planets in our solar system. It was “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”. With the downgrade of Pluto, their new phrase is “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us…Nothing!”

  3. While on my high school trivia team (in Toronto), I came up with the following, for Canadian Prime Ministers in order:

    Most Men Attend The Brotherhood To Loudly Beckon: “Must King Bob Shoot Down Pitch To Crown Those Macho Canadians Champ, Man, Huh?”

    The awkward “man, huh?” at the end is because when I wrote it, Chretien was PM, and since then there has been Martin and Harper as well.

  4. Learned during undergrad to remember cranial nerves I through XII: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina, So Heavenly.

    I know that it’s disturbing, but Woman’s Vagina doesn’t fit the pneumonic so I’ve changed it to goat. A Goat’s Vagina.

    1. I was about to post one similar, I’m glad someone else has said it first so I don’t feel like a dick for shouting “vaginas!” in the skepchicks forum. Well, not without someone else saying it first.

      Also, I can’t help noting the mnemonic has apparently failed you slightly (or you call your nerves something slightly different!) – the (slightly creepy) mnemonic I learned was “Oh, oh, oh, to touch and feel virginal girls vaginas and hymens!” – which gives me olfactory, optic, occulomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, vestibulocochlear, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal.

      I’ll admit that I cheated a little – I still get abducens and accessory mixed up. I know trochlear/trigeminal and vestib/vagus because the trigeminal and vagus are 5 and 10 respectively, but there’s no easy way to remember the “a”‘s.

  5. I learned a great one in physics back in elementary school. It doesn’t translate well into English, but I’ll try anyway:

    John TraVOLTa is CURRENTly ver popular and that’s why current is measured in volt.
    You can be CHARGEd if you attack someone with your PAIR of ARMs and that’s why charge is measured in arm-pair (ampere).

  6. I used the BSC pneumonic, “Kindly pass Claudia Oreos, for goodness sake” and then later heard another one, “King Pimpin’ could only find great sex.”

    I still know the preposition song from middle school and in high school I wrote a version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” that gave the Hindu caste system with corresponding part of the body they were connected to.

    I think it went something like this:
    Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra (Vaishya, Shudra)
    Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra (Vaishya, Shudra)
    Priests, warriors, peasants, traders, laborers.
    Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra (Vaishya, Shudra)

  7. not that it’s my favourite, but the one i used in high school for the taxonomic classifications was “king phillip caught our friends getting stoned.”

    apparently i don’t have long strings of words to remember, as i can’t think of any i’ve used since high school. mostly just equations. silly physics. :\

  8. I guess it’s a type of mnemonic device. When my best friend and I were 5 years old, we memorized the song “Fifty Nifty United States.” It lists the names of all the states in alphabetical order set to a catchy tune. Eventually we could do it without the tune. We had fun with that for years. We still sing it once in a while! I wonder if they have one of these songs for Canada? Or Australia?

  9. I teach music to kids. There are many different ways to remember the lines/spaces of the staffs. Here is my favorite which is for the lines of the treble clef staff:

    (read from the bottom up, the same position of the lines on the staff)

    Fish
    Dead
    Bert
    Gave
    Ernie

    1. In my class it was Elephants Got Big Dirty Feet.

      And to remember the modal scales (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian), my friends and I made up this one:

      I Don’t Play Like Mr. Al (Al being the first name of our music teacher.)

  10. Although not a mnemonic in the manner discussed here, an acronym I came up with helped everyone, in the copy writing course I took two years ago, get at least one question on the final correct.

    In the class, mainly about writing for radio, we learned that the most important point to remember, when writing/creating an ad, is to turn features into benefits. Show the consumer how the features of your product will benefit them.

    One day, while looking over my class notes, the acronym practically popped off the paper. When the next class rolled around I walked up to the white board and wrote, “Features Into Benefits,” then circled the first letter of each word.

    FIB

  11. You left out domain, meaning students will miss that question on the exam. Not mine–Do Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach. But incorporating profanity always seems easier to remember.

  12. To remember the geological periods Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devon, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous:
    Camels Ordinarily Sit Down Carefully Perhaps Their Joint Creaks.

  13. While not a mnemonic, I can not believe that nobody here at Geek Central™ has mentioned Schoolhouse Rock.
    I can’t even think of the preamble to the constitution without singing it.
    .
    Or Tom Lehrer’s Element Song. There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium…..
    .
    Damn, those aren’t mnemonics.
    How about;
    George Eats Old Grey Rats And Paints Houses Yellow

  14. To remember the planets, I’ve always used the very straightforward “My Very Excellent Memory Just Served Up Nine Planets.” Of course, it’s not nine anymore, but it’s easy enough for me to use that to remember the order and then subtract poor Pluto.

    To remember how many days each month has, I use a little poem my grandmother taught me: “Thirty days hath September / April, June, and November / All the rest have thirty-one / Except February, which has four and twenty-four / And leap year give it one day more.”

  15. The resistor color code for 0,1,2,3…9 is black, brown, red orange yellow green blue violet gray white. My high school shop/electronics teacher gave us this one.
    Bad Boys Runafter Our Young Girls But Violet Goes Willingly.

    Another version substitutes a word for Runafter and another for Goes, but that version is improper to say the least.

  16. I’m not the greatest with first-letter mnemonics unless they have an intricate story behind them or some great visualization (they really need to stimulate my senses).
    The mnemonics I remember at the moment are: Roy G. Biv, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (for notes on the treble clef lines). Also, using your knuckles to count the months off to determine which have 31 days, and which don’t.

    For taxonomy, I always had difficulty with the first-letter mnemonics that were given to me, so I stole this one from a video on the subject:
    The lion king (KING-dom) jumped onto a filing (PHYL-um) cabinet and spilled a glass (CLASS) of water that was sitting on top of it. The water splashed onto a nearby General, who then ordered (ORDER) the Simpson family (FAMILY) to clean up the water…….[[[this is actually the part where I stop remembering the mnemonic because prior to finding this mnemonic, I already new pretty exclusively that Genus and Species are the last two]]

  17. For the colours in the spectrum, a fairly common one in the UK is “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain” (or “gave battle vainly”, since as was pointed out above, indigo isn’t really different from blue and was largely included because Newton was religiously obsessed with the number seven…”

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