mnemonic (memory)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

an example of a mnemonic
A mnemonic to help us remember the correct spelling of separate.


A mnemonic is a device--such as an image, rhyme, or figure of speech--used to assist the memory. Adverb: mnemonically.

A familiar example of a mnemonic device is the name Roy G Biv, an acronym for the sequence of colors in a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

    From the Greek, "mindful, remembrance"

    Examples and Observations

    • HOMES: an acronymic mnemonic for the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior)
    • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: an acrostic mnemonic for the names of the notes on the treble clef
    • I before E
      Except after C,
      Or when sounded as A
      As in neighbor and weigh.
      (A rhyming mnemonic for a common spelling rule)
    • Mnemonic for the Planets
      "It was becoming clear that the idea that Pluto was no longer a planet was not going to be an easy sell. Throughout the hour, the host collected suggestions for a new mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets minus Pluto. Some offered a slight modification of My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas--turning 'Nine Pizzas' into 'Nachos' or into 'Nothing,' which was a bit funnier. But the best mnemonic, and the one that I still tell people to use to this day, was sent in by an anonymous listener and sums up the feelings that would envelop much of the world over the next days, weeks, and months: Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature."
      (Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Spiegel & Grau, 2010)
    • The Tradition of Memory Training
      "Ed [Cooke] started his first lesson with the most basic principle of all mnemonics: 'elaborative encoding.' . . .

      "Ed explained that mental athletes saw themselves as 'participants in an amateur research programme' whose aim was to rescue a long-lost tradition of memory training. The tradition began, at least according to legend, in the fifth century BC, with the poet Simonides of Ceos. When a banquet hall in Thessaly collapsed, Simonides, the only survivor, was asked to recall who was among the dead. As the poet stood in the rubble, closed his eyes and reconstructed the building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realisation: even though he had made no conscious effort to memorise the layout of the room, he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting.

      "He realised that if it hadn't been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of their dates of birth, he would have remembered that instead. Just about anything that could be imagined, he reckoned, could be imprinted upon one's memory simply by engaging one's spatial memory. To use his technique, all one has to do is convert something unmemorable, such as a string of numbers or deck of cards, into a series of engrossing visual images and mentally arrange them in an imagined space."
      (Joshua Foer, "Now Where Did I Put My Keys?" The Guardian, April 2, 2011)
    • Mnemonics in Oral Cultures
      "In a primary oral culture, to solve the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, . . . in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems. Mnemonic needs determine even syntax."
      (Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen, 1982)
    • Mnemonics in Classical Rhetoric
      - "Memory has traditionally been conceived as visual: classical mnemonic strategies for rhetoric . . . depended upon a visualization of architectural or spatial structures. Much modern self-narrative draws upon the mnemonic power of visual imagery often leading the autobiographer to include photographs (see Barthes and Breton) or to adopt a fragmented text, analogous to a collection of snapshots (see Walter Benjamin)."
      (Hannah Westley, The Body as Medium and Metaphor. Rodopi, 2008)

      - "The scientific bases of this imaged mnemonics are in Aristotle's psychology of memory, as set forth in De Memoria et Recollectione and De Anima. Let us summarize:
      1. Images are indispensable to thought: voluntary memory must therefore resort to images.
      2. Remembrance proceeds along a course of sequentially interlinked places that involve relations of similitude, opposition, and contiguity.
      3. The order and regularity of the sequences facilitates recall;
      4. Finally, memory and imagination are linked, both are grounded in the common sense, and they proceed according to the same dialectical development, by steps analogous to those of invention."
      (Michel Beaujour, Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait. NYU Press, 1991)