Non-Essential Mnemonics: Just The Essentials


(Note: Today’s feature contains excerpts from Kent Woodyard’s first book Non-Essential Mnemonics: An Unnecessary Journey Into Senseless Knowledge, out now from Prospect Park Books.)

Here’s a question for you: what did you eat for dinner on this day, three and a half weeks ago (Thursday)?

Assuming the night in question wasn’t the scene of a cataclysmic breakup, a violent spectacle of bodily fluid, or some combination thereof, and assuming you weren’t at a Presidential inauguration, Cirque du Soleil show, or some other similarly transformative event, I’m guessing you have no idea.

And it’s not just dinner three and a half Thursdays ago, is it? If I were an irresponsible gambler, I’d bet you can’t remember most dinners that occurred before, let’s say, yesterday. And I’m not picking on dinner either. If you’re anything like me (and why wouldn’t you be?) you probably can’t remember most of your life that predates the last moon cycle.

Sure, you’ve got a cracked cell phone screen, some unread e-mails, and a growing collection of scars and receipts giving evidence to the passage of time, but the lion’s share of your life experiences — the ones that didn’t occur in emergency rooms, national parks and police stations — have likely dissolved into a fog of half-imagined recollections that may or may not have happened in the way you remember, but which almost certainly involved a Taco Bell drive-thru at some point.

I once heard that people forget 80% of the things they learn in college. Most people take this to mean that 80% of college is a waste of time, which is generally correct. The broader point here, though, is that all of us will forget nearly everything we ever learn, and there’s no point in getting all weepy about it.

But what if there was a way to stop forgetting? What if there was a way to capture those fading memories and imprison them forever in the musty cellar of your brain? What if we could all acquire a Good Will Hunting-esque level of long-term recall that would amaze our friends and foil our rivals while scoring numbers from vaguely exotic coeds at college bars?

Well, scrape your brains off the ceiling — there is. They’re called mnemonic devices and they’re magical.

Mnemonic devices are insidious little tools used by educators to ensure information stays lodged in students’ brains decades after it is needed or desired. Depending on your attention span during grade school, and your tolerance for unnecessary consonants, you have likely met dozens of these devices over the course of your formal education. “Dozens” could mean “at least two.”

Mnemonic devices are the reason I can still recite the order of biological taxonomy and the colors of the rainbow fifteen years after I have had cause to do either. They are the reason I can name more Schoolhouse Rock songs than United States Senators. They are the reason I know that the Great Lakes spell “HOMES,” but have to request a new password every time I use PayPal.

Don’t ask me how they work. It’s got something to do with science, and — like all science that hasn’t been narrated by Morgan Freeman or turned into a condiment — I have little interest in it. What I’m interested in are results, and the results of mnemonic devices speak for themselves.

Think I’m exaggerating? Finish this sentence: “‘I’ before ‘E’ except…” Every third-grader knows that one. Or how about this one: “now I know my ABCs, next time…” Every first-grader knows that one. And this one: “‘More rum,’ demanded the matador…” What, you don’t recognize that one? Well let’s get started then.

“More rum,” demanded the matador. “Damn the tequila. Just rum — Jamaican and bitter.”

And there you have it: a mnemonic for the names of Matt Damon’s twelve made up brothers in Good Will Hunting. (Marky, Ricky, Danny, Terry, Mikey, Davey, Timmy, Tommy, Joey, Robby, Johnny, and Brian)

But why stop there? How about this one:

After leveling Ukraine, Genghis Khan marauded across the Urals leaving tattered “Khan Rules” banners everywhere.

This one you surely recognize as a brief (and mostly false) history of the Mongol Empire’s westward expansion. But did you know it is also a mnemonic for the countries of the former Soviet Union? I bet you didn’t. (Armenia, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Lithuania, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Estonia)

Got time for one more? Of course you do. You’re on the Internet.

Screen Actors Guild

You know SAG as the principal labor union responsible for representing American film and television performers. But why would you ever need to know that? Why is that in your brain? Let’s repurpose it for the work it was born to do: to serve as a mnemonic for the members of Simon & Garfunkel. (Simon and Garfunkel)

Look at that! You now know the members of Simon & Garfunkel and I’ve got a good feeling that you won’t forget them again for a long time. That’s how it is with mnemonic devices. Once read, each of them will immediately and indubitably transform itself into acquired knowledge that no amount of drinking or professional football playing will be able to erase.

Whether you are a graduate student, a homeschool mom, an aspiring community college professor or merely a weekend memory enthusiast, I encourage you to begin nurturing your affection for mnemonics today. Then and only then can you be certain that, while you may never remember what you did last weekend or what you had for dinner three and a half Thursdays ago, you will always remember the names of Will Hunting’s imaginary brothers.

And isn’t that enough?


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