What Is A Mnemonic?

Mnemonic (nih-MON-ik). 

It’s a funny word. Silent M? When does that happen? Never. Well, almost never, except in this word — and related words.

So what is a mnemonic? A mnemonic, or mnemonic device, is a memory aid — something simple that helps you remember something more complex.

And what about that silent M anyway? Well, it’s a Greek thing. The word mnemonic is related to the Greek goddess Mnemosyne, the goddess of… you guessed it: memory.

In this article, I’ll go over some of the most common mnemonic devices, with examples you may have come across.

Acronyms & Acrostics

For example, many schoolchildren learn the name ‘Roy G. Biv’ to remember the colors of the rainbow.

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet

This particular type of mnemonic is called an acronym. Another example of an acronym is the word HOMES, which helps us remember the names of the great lakes in North America:

  • Huron
  • Ontario
  • Michigan
  • Erie
  • Superior

A similar device is the acrostic. Acrostics are like acronyms, but instead of making one word (or name), it’s a kind of phrase or poem, where the first letter of each word spells out the message or thing to be remembered.

For example, the note names of the musical staff are EGBDF (in treble clef). Many young music students are taught the acrostic phrase “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” where the first letter of each word is a musical note. 

Here’s another one: Students of biology may use the acrostic “King Phil Came Over For Great Soup” to remember their taxonomy. The first letter of each of these words stands for the first letter of a taxonomic rank:

  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family 
  • Genus 
  • Species

Now, you may be thinking, “Great! Now I have to learn TWO things!” But the idea is that it’s easier to learn something simple, with familiar words, than it is to learn something entirely new and complex.

Songs & Rhymes

Songs and rhymes can also be enlisted as mnemonic devices. Personally, I couldn’t tell you how many days there are in November if I didn’t quickly recall the rhyme that I learned when I was eight years old:

Thirty days has September,
April, June, and November,
All the rest have thirty-one,
Except February which has twenty-eight…

Now those last couple of lines might not be the most gorgeous poetry, but “thirty days has September, April, June, and November” is catchy enough that it’s stuck with me for decades. And that’s the power of mnemonics, baby!

In many English-speaking countries, we learn our alphabet through rhyme, too. 

A, B, C, D, E, F, G,
H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, 
Q, R, S, T, U, V, 
W, X, Y, and Z

Our brains latch on to the sound and structure of rhyme and rhythm. Imagine how much harder it would be to try to remember the alphabet like this:

A, B, C, D, E, F
H, I J,
K, L, M, N, O, 
P, Q, R…

Ack! There’s no structure for our brains to grab hold of. But when we learn the rhyme (and the accompanying tune that usually comes with it), it sticks in our minds for life.


Are you old enough to remember a time when we just knew everyone’s phone numbers? Our Aunt’s, our Grandma’s, our best friend’s? Yeah, me either.

But apparently, that was the thing before smartphones. You actually memorized phone numbers. And how did we do that? By chunking

Instead of memorizing all the numbers at once, 1234567890, we “chunk” them, or put them into smaller groups: 123-456-7890. 

It’s hard for humans to hold lots of digits in our brains at once, so by chunking phone numbers, we only have to hold onto three or four at a time. Then we can piece them together.

And More

There are many more kinds of mnemonics, from “memory palaces,” in which you imagine the things you want to memorize are images in a big house, to the “mnemonic major system,” in which numbers 0-20 are assigned letters of the alphabet so you can remember long strings of numbers.

Are you a fan of mnemonics?

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