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Mr. BIV and all his Friends: A Word on Mnemonic Devices

(Note: The mnemonics listed below first appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and are now part of a bi-weekly series called “Non-essential Mnemonics.  You can view them in all their resplendent glory at http://mcsweeneys.net/links/mnemonics/.)

Even if we can’t spell the word, we’re all familiar with mnemonics.  Anyone who’s been to grade school has learned about the light spectrum with the help of The Right Rev. Roy G Biv.  Anyone studying North American geography has learned that HOMES is an acronym for the Great Lakes.  Anyone who has seen the movie Johnny Mnemonic knows that Keanu Reeves sucks at life.

Mnemonics are devious little tools employed by teachers to ensure their pupils will remember insignificant bits of information that their brains would otherwise discard to make room for more Miley Cyrus lyrics.  It is because of these insidious devices that adults are still able to recall the order of operations (My Dear Aunt Sally), the notes on the lines of the treble clef (Every Good Boy Does Fine), and the proper spelling of “because” (Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants) decades after this information was relevant.

My primary problem with grade school mnemonics is not so much that I can’t forget the things I wish I’d never learned.  It’s the banality of the mnemonic phrases themselves.  They mean nothing and they propagate lies.  Think about it.  Most kids don’t have an Aunt Sally and half the ones who do probably think she’s a bitch.  I bet small elephants confuse the hell out of big elephants.  And how many of the “good boys” from your elementary school are doing fine today?  Surely not every one of them.

If we must continue using these devices, let’s do two things: (1) use them to remember important things and (2) have the phrases themselves teach something helpful.  I have provided a few examples to get the revolution started.

Montreal, North Vancouver, Edmonton, Mississauga, Ottawa, Niagara Falls, Iqaluit, and Calgary.

A random smattering of Canadian cities? Nope.  It is a selection of tour stops from the Bare Naked Ladies’ unforgettable 1997 tour of Canada AND a mnemonic for the correct spelling of “mnemonic.”

Sweet, huh?

If I were to briefly summarize the last 45 minutes of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope by saying: Obi-Wan dies; Han and Chewbacca save Skywalker, you would have a concise understanding of arguably the second best film in the saga.  BUT, you would also have a mnemonic for the starting lineup of the Houston Rocket’s 1995 NBA championship team (Olajuwon, Drexler, Horry, Cassell, and Smith).  Two for the price of one!!

See what I mean?  Why can’t our mnemonic devices do twice the work: inform and remind?

For example, imagine hearing these shouts while hiking through a dense forest:

Ahhhhh! Aaoooww!  Stop-it!!!  Anyone?!  A-little-help-here!?!  AHHHHH!  Ewww-there-goes-my-leg!!  Noooo!! AHHHHHHH!!

You might realize that the speaker was being eaten by a bear, but you probably would not realize that his cries for help were also a list of the seven continents in order of Olympic medal count from least to greatest (Antarctica, Australia, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, North America).  Neat, huh?

Similarly, if I showed you this note I received from my ex-girlfriend Beth last month:

Dear Cheating Asshole,

We’re through.

Love (Hahaha! – kidding),

Beth Gardner

You would learn valuable lessons in brevity, irony, and the importance of deleting incriminating text messages, but you would also have a memorable mnemonic to help remember the eight UN Secretary Generals in no particular order (de Cueller, Annan, Waldheim, Thant, Lie, Hammarskjöld, Ki-moon, Boutros-Ghali).

These are the kind of mnemonics I would like to see more of.  I have no interest in learning that Kids Prefer Cheese Over Fried Green Spinach just as I have no interest in what it purports to teach (the order of biological taxonomy).  I want useful mnemonics to help memorize useful information.  Like this last one.  If you memorize the following paragraph, not only will you have a better understanding of New Jersey’s socio-political climate, you will also have a tool to help remember the last names of the 44 American presidents:

What ­about Jersey?  Mafioso, murderers, addicts, juvenile vagrants, and Bonjovi.  Here they praise these felonious people.  Blighted little Jersey: guns, hookers, Goombas, AtlanticCity.  “Come home, criminal miscreants” reads the tourism website.  And here come the hucksters, racketeers, trannies, and every korrupt-cop.  Jersey, News Flash: Criminals rarely benefit children, businesses, or organizations.

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