Words & Stuff

m: A Roiling Mind Gathers Mnemosyne

(30 March 1997)

Mnemosyne was the ancient Greek goddess of memory, the mother of the Muses. From a word related to her name we get the word "mnemonic" (a device for remembering something), one of the few English words starting with a silent 'm.'

Mnemonics can be used to aid fallible human memory in recalling numbers, pronunciations, the order (and often initial letters) of a sequence, even the correct action to take in particular circumstances. For instance: There are lots of mnemonics specific to particular professions or fields of study. I can never remember the ones for lobes of the brain, or geological ages; there's a Web page that lists some of them for those interested. Here are some field-specific mnemonics that have stuck in my brain over the years:

Many mnemonics take the form of two phrases with similar rhythms. Sometimes it can be hard to remember the mnemonic correctly -- and if you get a mnemonic backwards, it's worse than no use. For instance,

Feed a cold, starve a fever.

It always takes me a little while to convince myself it's not "feed a fever, starve a cold." Though I gather neither of those is terribly good medical advice anyway.

And then there's the traditional rhyme to remember signs of good and bad weather:

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.
Red sky at night, sailors delight.

Unfortunately, I always remember this second line as ending "...sailors take fright." Fortunately, I'm not a sailor, so my inability to remember the rhyme properly has yet to have serious effect.


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>