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Here's the reason I haven't been updating my website or sending out my newsletter for a long time — I've been working on a dictionary. The Indo-European Cognate Dictionary, to be precise. It's out now, and I'm really excited about it. Excited that it's done, excited than I now have a physical copy that I can use myself, excited because — hey, I've written a dictionary! It weighs in at 545 pages, and it's available in the usual digital formats, except Kindle.

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Proto-Indo-European language

  • Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages.
  • Recognizing the relatedness of words in different languages can give you a boost in memorizing them.
  • My Indo-European Cognate Dictionary gathers words from 32 languages into cognate clusters that show related words.

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the ultimate ancestor of many European and Indian languages. The word "proto" indicates it was spoken thousands of years in the past and we have no direct record of it. What we do have is the clear evidence in its descendant languages, from the consistent patterns in the way their words vary,  that there was such an ancestor. Following these patterns, scholars have deduced a quite extensive vocabulary — but they are still reconstructed, not ‘real’ words. We can never know exactly how these words were pronounced, or precisely how they were used. Conventionally, therefore, such words are written with a preceding asterisk.

Here is a list of the living branches of the Indo-European language tree (the languages covered in my Indo-European Cognate Dictionary are given in bold print):

Celtic: Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic (in order of number of speakers)


West Germanic: English, Old English, Frisian, Dutch, German

North Germanic: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Norse (in order of number of speakers)

Italic: Latin and its descendants: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian

Greek (Ancient, Modern)


Baltic: Lithuanian, Latvian


Western: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Sorbian / Lusatian

Southern: Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, Bulgarian

Eastern: Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian



Iranian: Persian, Tajik, Pashto, Baluchi, Kurdish, Ossete

Indic / Indo-Aryan: Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Nepali, Sinhala, Urdu, Romani

Linguistic laws

Here are some of the patterns that scholars have observed. These have become complicated over the years as linguists explain variations, but the initial discovery was very simple and easy to describe. So, bearing in mind that these ‘rules’ don’t apply all the time, and there are a number of principles that describe variations to these rules, and other patterns, here are the main linguistic patterns relating to Germanic languages. These were first realized by Jacob Grimm (yes, one of the Grimm brothers, of fairy tale fame) in 1822. Grimm spotted that a p at the beginning of a word in Sanskrit, Latin, or Greek, consistently becomes f in Germanic languages. He went on to observe nine such patterns, which collectively are known as Grimm’s law:

p → fbook cover

d → t

k → h

t → th

b → p

g → k

bh → b

dh → d

gh → g

Here are examples of these in action:

Latin pater is English father  (p → f; t → th)

French pied is English foot (p → f; d → t)

Latin caput is Old English hafud (k → h; p → f), meaning head

Latin tres is English three (t → th)

Lithuanian dubus (from PIE *dʰewb-) is English deep (b → p)

Latin genus (race) and English kin are cognate (g → k), as is Latin ager (field) and English acre

PIE *bʰeh2go- becomes beech in English, but that same bh sound becomes f in Latin and Greek, hence fāgus and  φηγός ‎(phēgós)

similarly, PIE *bʰréh2tēr is brother in English, but frater in Latin and φράτηρ ‎(phrátēr) in Greek

PIE *dʰugh2tḗr becomes daughter; PIE *dʰwer- becomes door

PIE *ǵʰer- becomes garden and garth in English, but hortus and χόρτος ‎(khórtos) in Latin and Greek

It’s also worth noting that there’s a fundamental distinction between the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ branches of the Indo-European tree, that’s expressed as the kentum-satem divide. This reflects the fact that most of the Western languages have a word for hundred that begins with a hard k sound, like Latin centum (in the Germanic languages, as Grimm’s law describes, this k becomes h, hence our hundred). In the Eastern languages, the word for hundred begins with a soft s sound, as in the Sanskrit word satem. This distinction between a hard k and a soft s sound is thought to reflect a very early split in the Proto-Indo-European tribes, as some headed west and others east. Note how that Western-Eastern divide plays out in the branches:

Western (kentum): Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Anatolian

Eastern (satem): Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Indo-Iranian

Having talked about changes, I should note that, notwithstanding the thousands of years that have passed, the occasional PIE word has been retained almost unchanged to the present day (and personally, I find that quite exciting to see!). Daughter (*dʰugh2tḗr) and *new (new) are excellent examples of this.

Relevance to language learning

It's said that you need around 2000 words to be usefully fluent in a language (this is a ballpark figure, and obviously depends on the language and what you need it for). Learning this number of words is the reason why most people fail at learning another language. But here's the thing — people often think it's all about memorization, and it isn't. Even though vocab learning would seem to be a prime example of information that just needs to be hammered into your brain using brute force, rather than building understanding, there is in fact a role for understanding, for natural connections with information you already know well.

How easy a language is to learn is partly down to the number of shared cognates — Spanish, for example, is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, because there's a huge number of words that are very very similar. But not all cognates are obvious to the untutored eye. Some need a bit more knowledge before they become clear. If you can learn to see those natural connections, you won't need to apply more difficult strategies.

In my cognate dictionary, I have collected 40,000 words from 32 Indo-European languages into 430 cognate clusters, in order to help you increase the number of words you can learn through natural connections.

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New mnemonics books & articles

  • New 2nd edition of Mnemonics for Study
  • New Spanish & Italian editions
  • New mnemonics articles

book coverI have updated my Mnemonics for Study book. The two main changes are that each chapter now has review questions, and there's an extra chapter which is a very detailed step-by-step case study, showing how and when to use mnemonics to learn the Geological Time Scale. There are lots of visuals,  mnemonics and others.

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Memorizing the Geological Time Scale

In the following case study, I explore in depth the issue of learning the geological time scale — names, dates, and defining events. The emphasis is on developing mnemonics, of course, but an important part of the discussion concerns when and when not to use mnemonics, and how to decide.

The Geological Time Scale

Phanerozoic Eon 542 mya—present

  Cenozoic Era 65 mya—present

    Neogene Period 23 mya—present

Holocene Epoch 8000 ya—present

Pleistocene Epoch 1.8 mya—8000ya

Pliocene Epoch 5.3 mya—1.8 mya

Miocene Epoch 23 mya—5.3 mya

   Paleogene Period 65 mya—23 mya

Oligocene Epoch 34 mya—23 mya

Eocene Epoch 56 mya—34 mya

Paleocene Epoch 65 mya—56 mya

  Mesozoic Era 250 mya—65 mya

    Cretaceous Period 145 mya—65 mya

    Jurassic Period 200 mya—145 mya

    Triassic Period 250 mya—200 mya

  Paleozoic Era 542 mya—250 mya

    Permian Period 300 mya—250 mya

    Carboniferous Period 360 mya—300 mya

    Devonian Period 416mya—360 mya

    Silurian Period 444 mya—416 mya

    Ordovician Period 488 mya—444 mya

    Cambrian Period 542mya—488 mya

Precambrian 4560 mya—542 mya

 Proterozoic Eon 2500 mya—542 mya

 Archean Eon 3800 mya—2500 mya

 Hadean Eon 4560 mya—3800 mya

How do we set about learning all this? Let’s look at our possible strategies.

Memorizing new words, lists and dates


A common trick to help remember the geological time scale is to use a first-letter acronym, such as the classic:

Camels Often Sit Down Carefully; Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Persistent Early Oiling Might Prevent Permanent Rheumatism.

(This begins with the Cambrian Period and moves forward in time; note that in this traditional mnemonic the Holocene Epoch is here thought of by its older name of “Recent Epoch”.)

What’s the problem with this, as a way of remembering the geological scale?

It assumes we already know the names.

The principal (and often, only) purpose of an acronym is to remind you of the order of items that you already know.

A common problem with acronyms (first-letter by definition) is that there are often repeats of initials, causing confusion. A more useful strategy (though far more difficult) might be to use the first two or preferably three letters of the words. This not only distinguishes more clearly between items, but also provides a much better cue for items that are not hugely familiar. For example, here’s one I came up with for the geological time-scale:

Hollow Pleadings Plight Miosis;

Olive Eons Pall Creation; (or Olive Eons Palm Credulous, for a slight rhyme)

Juries Trick Perplexed Carousers;

Devils Silence Ordered Campers.

Because it is extremely difficult to make a meaningful sentence with these restraints (largely because of rare combinations such as Eo- and Mio- and to a lesser extent, Pli, Oli, and Jur), I have used rhythm to group it into a verse. There’s a slight rhyme, but it’s amazing how much power rhythm has to facilitate memory on its own.

It is easier, of course, to construct a sentence with these items if you are allowed to include a few “insignificant” words (i.e., not nouns or verbs) to hold them all together. Here’s a possible sentence, this time starting from the oldest and moving forward to the most recent:

Campers Order Silver Devils to Carry Persons Tricking Jurisprudent Cretins in Palmy Eons of Olive Milk and Pliant Pleadings for Holidays

The problem with both this and the “verse” is that they are too long, given their difficulty, to be readily memorable. The answer to this is organization, and later we’ll discuss how to use organization to reduce the mnemonic burden. But first, let’s deal with another problem.

Although the use of three-letter acronyms lessens the need for such deep familiarity with the items to be learned, you do still need to know the items. With names as strange as the ones used in the geological time-scale, the best strategy is probably the keyword mnemonic (or at least a simplified version).

Looking for meaning

But let’s start by considering the origin of the names. If they’re meaningful, if there is a logic to the naming that we can follow, our task will be made incomparably easier.

Unfortunately, in this case there’s not a lot of logic to the naming. Some of the periods are named after geographical areas where rocks from this period are common, or where they were first found — these are probably the easiest to learn. The epochs in particular, however, are problematic, as they are very similar, being based on ancient Greek (in which few students are now trained), and, most importantly of all, being essentially meaningless.

Let’s look at them in detail. The common cene ending comes from the Greek for new (ceno).

  • Holocene is from holos meaning entire
  • Pleistocene is from pleistos meaning most
  • Pliocene is from pleion meaning more
  • Miocene is from meion meaning less
  • Oligocene is from oligos meaning little, few
  • Eocene is from eos meaning dawn
  • Paleocene is from palaois meaning old

So we have

  • Holocene: entire new
  • Pleistocene: most new
  • Pliocene: more new
  • Miocene: less new
  • Oligocene: little new
  • Eocene: dawn new
  • Paleocene: old new

You could find this helpful (remember that we’re moving backward in time, so that the Holocene is indeed the newest of these, and the Paleocene is the oldest), but the naming is really too arbitrary and meaningless to be of great help.

Better to come up with associations that have more meaning, even if that meaning is imposed by you. Here’s some words you could use:

  • Holocene: holy; hollow; hologram; holly
  • Pleistocene: plasticine; plastic
  • Pliocene: pliable; pliant; pliers
  • Miocene: my; milo; myopic
  • Oligocene: oligarchy; olive; oliphaunt (! Notice that the words don’t have to be familiar to the whole world, even the dictionary-makers; the important thing is that they have significance to you)
  • Eocene: eon; enzyme; obscene (note that it is not necessary for the word to begin with the same letter(s) — a particularly difficult task in this instance; what’s important is whether the word will serve as a good link for you)
  • Paleocene: palace; palatial; paleolithic

To tie your chosen word to the word to be learned, you must form an association (that’s why it’s so important to choose a word that’s good for you — associations are very personal). For example, you could say:

  • Holograms are very recent (the Holocene is the most recent epoch)
  • Glaciers are plastic or My glaciers are made of plasticine (the Pleistocene was the time of the “Great Ice Age”)
  • The pliant Americas joined together or Pliable hominids arose (Hominidae began in the Pliocene, and North and South America joined up)
  • Mild weather saw Africa collide with Asia (the Miocene was warmer than the preceding epoch; during this time Africa finally connected to Eurasia)
  • Elephants become oligarchs! (during the Oligocene mammals became the dominant vertebrates)
  • Continents obscenely separate (Laurasia, the northern supercontinent, began to break up at the beginning of the Eocene; Gondwanaland, the southern supercontinent, continued its breakup)
  • Pale from the disaster, we pull ourselves together (the Paleocene marks the beginning of a new era, after the K-T boundary event (thought by many to be an asteroid impact) in which the dinosaurs and so much other life died)

Now this is not, of course, in strict accordance with the keyword method. According to this method, we should choose a word as phonetically similar to the word-to-be-learned as possible, and as concrete as possible, and then form a visual image connecting the two. While this is fine with learning a different language (the most common use for the keyword method, and the one for which it was originally designed), it is clearly very difficult to create an image for something as abstract and difficult to visualize as a period of time.

It’s also often difficult to find keywords that are both phonetically similar and concrete. We must improvise as best we may. What you need to bear in mind is that you are searching for an association that will stick in your mind, and link the unfamiliar (the information you are learning) to the familiar (information already well established in your mind).

With this in mind, look again at the suggested associations. This time, think in terms of whether you can make a picture in your mind.Holocene mnemonic image

Instead of “Holograms are very recent”, you might want to form an image of someone falling into a hole (tying the Holocene to the “Age of Humans”).


Glaciers made of plasticine might stand.Pleistocene mnemonic image






Pliocene mnemonic imageIf you can visualize very limber (perhaps in distorted postures) ape-like humans, Pliable hominids might be satisfactory, or you may need to fall back on the pliers — perhaps an image of pliers bringing North and South America together.



Miocene mnemonic imageMild weather isn’t terribly imageable; you might like to imagine milk pouring from the joint where Africa and Eurasia have collided.



Oligocene mnemonic imageOligarchs is likewise difficult, but you could visualize elephants under olive trees, eating the olives.





Eocene mnemonic imageAnd now of course, we come to the most difficult — the Eocene. Here’s a thought, for those brought up with Winnie the Pooh. If you have a clear picture of Eeyore, you could use him in this image. Perhaps Eeyore is standing on one part of the separating Laurasia (looking appropriately disconsolate).



Paleocene mnemonic image

The Paleocene might best be associated with a palace, if we’re looking for something imageable — perhaps dinosaurs sheltering in a palace as the asteroid comes down and destroys it.


You see from this that the demands of visual associations are often quite different from those of verbal associations. Both are effective. Whether you use verbal or visual associations should depend not only on your personal preference (some people find one easier, and some the other), but also on what the material best affords — that is, what is easiest, what comes more readily to mind, and also, which association will be less easily forgotten.

But mnemonics only take you so far. While very useful for learning new words, and for learning lists, they are not a good basis for developing an understanding of a subject — and unlike the situation of learning a language, a scientific topic definitely requires a more holistic approach. Mnemonics here are very much an adjunct strategy, not a complete solution. So before using mnemonics to fix specific hard-to-remember details in my brain, I would begin by organizing the information to be learned, with the goal of cutting it into meaningful chunks.


Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study


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Story mnemonic

The story method (sometimes called the sentence mnemonic) is the most easily learned list-mnemonic strategy, although it is not as widely known as the other simple methods we’ve talked about so far.

As its name suggests, the story method involves linking words to be learned in a story. While this is most obviously useful for learning actual lists, it can also be used for remembering the main points of a passage. In such a case, you need to reduce each point to a single word, which hopefully has the power to recall the whole point.

Let’s look at an example. First, an easy one — a list:

Vegetable Instrument College Carrot Nail Fence Basin Merchant Scale Goat

This can be transformed into:

A VEGETABLE can be a useful INSTRUMENT for a COLLEGE student. A CARROT can be a NAIL for your FENCE or BASIN. But a MERCHANT would SCALE that fence and feed the carrot to a GOAT.

But let’s face it , this is not a very probable list of words for you to memorize. The example is taken (with some modification) from a laboratory experiment1, and the few tests of the story mnemonic that there have been have tended to involve such lists of unrelated words. But learning lists of unrelated words is not something we need to do very often. And generally, if we do have lists of words to learn — say, the names of the elements in the periodic table — they’re going to be too technical to lend themselves readily to creating a story.

Even if the words themselves are not particularly technical, the nature of them is not likely to lend itself to a narrative. Let me show you what I mean. Consider the taxonomy of living things:








Here’s an attempt at a story:

In the KINGDOM, PHYLUM is a matter of CLASS, but ORDER is a matter for FAMILY, and GENIUS lies in SPECIES.

The trouble with this is not the re-coding of genus to genius; the trouble is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a sentence, but not a story — there’s no narrative. Humans think in stories. We find them easy to remember because they fit in with how we think. It follows then that the more effective story mnemonics will actually tell a story. To do that, we’re going to have to transform our technical words into more common words.

King Phillip went to the classroom to order the family genius to specifically name the individual who had stolen the taxi.

The last part of this is of course unnecessary — you could finish it after individual if you wished. But an important thing to remember is that it’s not about brevity. It’s about memorability. And memorability is not as much affected by amount to remember, as it is by the details of what is being remembered. So meaningfulness is really important. Adding that little detail about stealing the taxi adds meaningfulness (and also underlines what this mnemonic is about: taxonomy).

Here’s a longer example. Remember our hard-to-remember cranial nerves? This story was mentioned in a 1973 Psychology Today article by the eminent psychologist G.H. Bower2:

At the oil factory the optician looked for the occupant of the truck. He was searching because three gems had been abducted by a man who was hiding his face and ears. A glossy photograph had been taken of him, but it was too vague to use. He appeared to be spineless and hypocritical.

Here it is again with the nerves shown for comparison:

At the oil factory (olfactory) the optician (optic) looked for the occupant (oculomotor) of the truck (trochlear). He was searching because three gems (trigeminal) had been abducted (abducens) by a man who was hiding his face (facial) and ears (auditory). A glossy photograph (glossopharyngeal) had been taken of him, but it was too vague (vagus) to use. He appeared to be spineless (spinal accessory) and hypocritical (hypoglossal).

Notice how, with these technical words, they have been transformed into more familiar words — this is what I meant by saying the keyword method is a vital part of all these list-mnemonics.


Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

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First-letter Mnemonics

The two types of first-letter mnemonics

First-letter mnemonics are, as their name suggests, memory strategies that use the initial letters of words as aids to remembering. This can be an effective technique because initial letters are helpful retrieval cues, as anyone who has endeavored to remember something by mentally running through the letters of the alphabet can attest to.

There are two types of first-letter mnemonic:

  • acronyms: initial letters form a meaningful word;
  • acrostics: initial letters are used as the initial letters of other words to make a meaningful phrase

ROY G. BIV is an acronym (for the colors of the rainbow), and Richard Of York Gives Battle In Vain is an acrostic for the same information.

Similarly, the acronym FACE is used to remember the notes in the spaces of the treble staff, and the acrostic Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit for the notes on the lines of the treble staff.

Here’s some more well-known ones. Some acronyms first:

MRS GREN — the characteristics of living things: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion, Nutrition.

BEDMAS — the order of mathematical operations: Brackets, Exponent, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction.

HOMES — the Great Lakes in the U.S.A.: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.

And some acrostics:

My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas — the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle — the order of sharps in music

King Phillip Came Over From Great Spain — the order of categories in the taxonomy of living things: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species

It’s likely that you’ll know very different acrostics for these same items. That’s one difference between acronyms and acrostics — the same acronyms are likely to be known to everyone, but acrostics are much more varied. The reason’s not hard to seek — clearly there are infinite possibilities for acrostics, but very very limited possibilities for acronyms.

This means, of course, that opportunities to use acronyms are also very limited. It is only rarely that the initial letters of a group of items you wish to learn will form a word or series of words or at least a pseudo-word (a series of letters that do not form a word but are pronounceable as one — like BEDMAS).

Nothing is going to make MVEMJSUNP (the order of planets) memorable in itself, even if you break it up into vaguely intelligible bits, like this: M.V. Em J. Sun P. (although that does help — say it and you’ll see why).

Acrostics, on the other hand, are easy to create, and any string of items can be expressed in that form. For example:

My Very Earnest Mother Jumped Seven Umbrellas Near Paris

Men View Enemies Mildly Juiced Since United Nations Party

Michael Voted Every May Judiciously Since Union Newsletters Plunged

Problems with first-letter mnemonics

Medical students are probably the group who use first-letter mnemonics most. Here’s a medical example that demonstrates a common problem with first-letter mnemonics:

On Old Olympia’s Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop

This is a mnemonic for remembering the cranial nerves: olfactory, optic, oculomotor, trochlear, trigeminal, abducens, facial, auditory, glossopharyngeal, vagus, accessory, and hypoglossal. Of course, reiterating my earlier point, the mnemonic wouldn’t help most of us remember this information, because we don’t know these names. But there’s another problem with this acrostic: three Os, two Ts and three As. This is a particular problem when the purpose of the acrostic is to remind you of the precise order of items, for obvious reasons. In such a case, you need to use words that distinguish between similar items. Thus, a better acrostic for our medical students might be:

Oliver Operates Occasional Tropical Tricks Absurdly For Australian Gymnasts Vaulting Actual Helicopters

Except that the traditional acrostic does have two big advantages that make it a much more memorable sentence: rhythm and rhyme. Say them both aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s try for an acrostic that contains the vital information and is memorable.

Oliver Opens Oceans; Tropical Trips Abet; Fabulous Authors Gushing; Violent Acts Hinted

Okay, this isn’t very good either, and it took a little while to come up with. I’ve tried to distinguish the same-initial terms by including the second letter. The problem is, this additional constraint makes a big difference in limiting the possibilities.

Also, of course, creating an acrostic with rhyme and rhythm requires a great deal more work than simply creating a meaningful sentence. Rhyme and rhythm do, however, render the acrostic considerably more memorable.

In fact, were I trying to memorize the 12 cranial nerves, I wouldn’t use a first-letter mnemonic. Let us consider what you need to learn:

  • the names of each nerve
  • the function of each nerve
  • the order of each nerve

The cranial nerves are not simply in a particular order; they are numbered. This immediately suggests the appropriate mnemonic: the pegword mnemonic. And the need to remember some rather strange names, and associate this information with function, suggests another useful mnemonic: the keyword mnemonic.


Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study


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Coding mnemonics

Most people find numbers — phone numbers, personal identification numbers, dates, and so on — more difficult to remember than words. That is, of course, why businesses try to get phone numbers that correspond to some relevant word. The system whereby this is possible — the linking of certain letters to the different digits on a telephone calling pad —is a kind of coding mnemonic. Basically, coding mnemonics are systems that transform numbers into words.

Because words are much easier for most of us to remember, this is a good way to remember numbers, but it’s not the only one. If you have a facility for numbers, or an existing store of memorized numbers (dates, baseball scores, running times, whatever), you can use those memorized numbers or your understanding of mathematical patterns to remember new numbers. In one well-known experiment1, for example, the subject was able (after 250 hours of practice!) to recall up to 82 digits after hearing them at the rate of one digit a second. This subject was a runner, and used his knowledge of record times to make the digit strings more memorable.

The difficulty with a coding system is that you can’t use it effectively until you have fluently memorized the codes, to the extent that the linked letter (if encoding) or digit (if decoding) comes automatically to mind. This requirement makes this sort of mnemonic the costliest of all the mnemonics — that is, it takes the most time and effort to master.

Here is the best-known digit-letter code — it’s important to note the system is based on sound rather than actual letters, so various similar sounding letters are regarded as equivalent:

0 = s, z, soft c (zero starts with a s sound)

1 = t, d, th (there’s 1 downstroke in t)

2 = n (2 downstrokes in n)

3 = m (3 downstrokes in m)

4 = r (r is the last letter of four)

5 = l (l is 50 in Roman numbers)

6 = sh, ch, j, soft g (six has a sort of sh sound)

7 = k, q, hard g, hard c (number 7 is embedded in k)

8 = f, v (both 8 and f have two loops)

9 = p, b (9 is p the wrong way round)

Practical uses for coding mnemonics

In the study situation, there is quite a lot of numerical information that you might need or be interested in learning. Historical dates; mathematical formulae; geographical facts. Let’s look at how we can combine three different mnemonics to remember the lengths of the ten longest rivers (in miles):

  1. Nile (4140 miles)
  2. Amazon (3990 miles)
  3. Yangtse (3960 miles)
  4. Yenisei-Angara (3445 miles)
  5. Ob-Irtysh (3360 miles)
  6. Hwang Ho (3005 miles)
  7. Zaire/Congo (2900 miles)
  8. Amur (2800 miles)
  9. Mekong (2795 miles)
  10. Lena (2730 miles)

First, let’s use the coding mnemonic to convert the lengths:

  1. Nile 4140 = r-t-r-s = rotors, raiders, readers
  2. Amazon 3990 = m-p-p-s = my pipes
  3. Yangtse 3960 = m-p-sh-s = impish ass
  4. Yenisei-Angara 3445 = m-r-r-f = more or few, more rev
  5. Ob-Irtysh 3360 = m-m-sh-s = mommy shoes
  6. Hwang Ho 3005 = m-s-s-f = mass shave, miss safe
  7. Zaire/Congo 2900 = n-p-s-s = any passes
  8. Amur 2800 = n-f-s-s = no fusses
  9. Mekong 2795 = n-k-p-f = neck puff
  10. Lena 2730 = n-k-m-s = hen games

They’re not brilliant, I know. Sometimes numbers will fall nicely into meaningful words, but more often than not they won’t. Still, you’ll be surprised how much these rather weird phrases help.

Now we need to use the keyword mnemonic to turn the names of the rivers into something concrete and familiar.

Nile — nail

Yangtse — ant sea (a sea of ants)

Yenisei-Angara — nice anchor (nice is not concrete, but you can attach it by always thinking nice anchor when visualizing it)

Ob-Irtysh — (observe the) yurt

Hwang Ho — hanging (image of a noose hanging from a gallows)

Zaire/Congo — stair (not using Congo because of its similarity to Mekong)

Amur — a mule

Mekong — King Kong

Lena — lion

You’ll notice I didn’t give a keyword for Amazon; I felt the female Amazon would provide an adequate image.

Now we can use the pegword mnemonic to provide our ordered list. So we tie our keywords to the pegwords to produce the following images:

  1. a nail in a bun
  2. an Amazon with one big shoe
  3. a sea of ants around a tree
  4. an anchored door
  5. someone watching a yurt with a beehive hanging from its pole
  6. an axe among sticks next to the gallows
  7. stairway to heaven
  8. a mule nudging a gate
  9. King Kong drinking wine
  10. a lion ripping apart a hen

Once you’ve worked on visualizing these images and got them well down, you can then connect the images to your sentences. Don’t worry if your images aren’t as clear as you think they should be; I rely equally on the words as much as the images — but it helps to visualize as much as you can while thinking on the words.

Now you’ve got these word-images (and it really does take very little practice), you can stick the coded phrases on.

  1. a nail in a bun: rotors (helicopter blades) trying to lift the nailed bun
  2. an Amazon with one big shoe: tripping over her big shoe, she drops her blowpipes: My pipes! she cries
  3. a sea of ants around a tree: an impish ass (donkey) grins as he flicks ants at the tree
  4. an anchored door: the door strains to move against its anchor; I shout: More rev!
  5. someone watching a yurt with a beehive hanging from its pole: the observer is wearing mommy shoes
  6. an axe among sticks next to the gallows: a mass of people lining up to be shaved by the axe (mass shave)
  7. stairway to heaven: “any passes?” I ask anxiously
  8. a mule nudging a gate: going through easily; “no fusses
  9. King Kong drinking wine: big neck puff around his neck
  10. a lion ripping apart a hen: hen games!

It all sounds very strained and unnecessarily complicated if you simply read all this! You absolutely cannot appreciate this method until you try it. It really is much simpler than it appears (although still not a simple strategy). However, it is vital that you build up the strategy step by step. In this case, for example, you must be fully confident of the standard 1-10 pegwords (1 is a bun, etc) first; then you fix the rivers to the pegwords firmly; and finally you attach the coded phrases.


Excerpted from Mnemonics for Study

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Improving attention

Forget the persistent myth that everything is remembered; that our brains are video cameras whirring away recording everything, and that such 'hidden' knowledge can be brought to light by a hypnotist or alien artefact. Such things are the stuff of fantasy. Of course, there is a nugget of truth there: we can, and do, remember things we've paid no conscious attention to. Sometimes the right question can elicit memories we didn't know we had, in more detail than we imagined we could have. But for the most part, what's not noticed is not remembered. Attention is crucial to memory.

In particular, attention is crucial to good encoding. That is, the construction of memories that will be easily accessed.

In study, of course, we become especially aware of the connection between attention and memory. That's because learning is all about the deliberate construction of accessible memories.

But attention is somewhat of a bugbear: we all recognize its importance, but improving it is no easy task. Nor does research have as much to offer as it might. There are no quick and easy 'fixes' to failing concentration, to the difficulties of focusing on your work when your mind is full of other things.

Here's the most important thing to know when it comes to understanding attention: Attention and working memory are inextricably entwined. Indeed, it's thought that your working memory capacity reflects the extent to which you can control your attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information or competing demands.

In other words, the undeniable differences between people’s working memory capacity are not so much because people differ in how much information they can keep active, but because they vary in their ability to control attention.

Controlling attention has two main aspects:

  • your ability to focus on one thing
  • your ability to ignore distracting and irrelevant information.

It now seems likely that an erosion in the ability to ignore distraction is the principal reason for the cognitive decline so often seen with age.

Your ability to ignore distraction is also challenged by other circumstances, such as stress and anxiety, sleep deprivation, busy environments.

Improving your attention, then, is a complex task, that should be approached from multiple directions:

tags strategies: 

A cognitive failure is generally a strategy failure

I'd like to dwell a little on the comment I made in my recent brief post, regarding the balance between your awareness of the fallibility of human memory and your belief in your own abilities. Some examples should help clarify what I mean.

tags memworks: 

tags study: 

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