Mnemonic

Hovertext: “It’s definitely not the time to try drinking beer before liquor.”

Clearly there’s some sort of reference to “leaves of three; let it be” for poison ivy, but it’s still a CIDU for me.

I suggest that it’s more fun if we avoid peeking at explainxkcd until the discussion here has run its course.

From RR.

82 Comments

  1. Well, “red touches yellow” would be a reference to a coral snake (venomous), leaves of 3 obviously poison ivy, and “red sky at morning” finishes with “sailor take warning” indicating storms. Three indicators of danger so a triple warning to get out of Dodge.

  2. A combination of three mnemonics I remember from Boy Scouts:

    Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. [coral snake]
    Leaves of three, let ti be. [poison ivy, oak]
    Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. [weather]

    If all three are present at once, run!

  3. Folk sayings.

    “If red touches black, it’s safe for Jack. If red touches yellow, it kills a fellow.”

    is about the relative safety of snakes.

    “Red sky at night, shepherd’s (or sailors depending on where you grew up) delight, red sky in morning, shepherd’s rewarding”

    is about weather prediction, and

    “Beer before liquor, never sicker; liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”

    is about the order of mixing drinks.

    I didn’t know the three leaves one.

  4. The joke is that this person can’t remember the mnemonic. They stumble around using bits from multiple mnemonics and then conclude with something that is not mnemonic worthy. It reminds me of the time that I had a password hint set that was too clever and was no help at all in recalling a password.

  5. Like Singapore Bill, I’ve had trouble with self-created mnemonics, where I later either don’t recall the hint/cue, or don’t recall how to decode it. But I don’t have too much trouble with culturally shared mnemonics — either I remember one and how to apply it, or else I get rid of it — and sometimes get exasperated with people complaining about one.

    Having a little tune (or standardized sing-songy recitation that is close to a tune) is a big help in remembering, and enjoying, one. I do sometimes recite the length-of-months rhyme, though I certainly don’t need it – I can use the principle that long and short alternate except for the two adjacent long ones just after the middle – or for that matter in my time I have experienced enough long Januaries and short Novembers that I don’t need help.

    I can recite the alphabet backwards, assisted by a little sing-songy recitation style (which turns into a tune at the end with that descending scale on the E D C B A).

    I don’t understand people who complain about “Spring forward, Fall back” and say “I don’t know how to use that.” (Though I enthusiastically join with those who complain about the whole cycle of entering and leaving DST — but because it’s horribly disruptive of daily life, not because I can’t remember which way to adjust clocks.) For those whose complain is framed as “Spring forward fall back, I can’t tell if we’re gaining an hour or losing an hour!” I agree that I don’t know if we’re gaining or losing an hour, but the problem is with the gaining and losing way of putting it, not with the mnemonic. I have maybe a quarter sympathy-unit of compassion for those whose issue is remembering the mnemonic phrase itself, because “You could spring back in horror from a ghastly sight!”.

    Just this morning I saw a tweet from a mom who said she remembered PEMDAS just fine but her child is being taught a different way of handling the order of operations in arithmetic. I’m sure we had some explicit lesson in order of operations in my time too, but I never was exposed to that mnemonic word (or one of its several extant variants!). Since the word is pretty opaque, there has been another level of mnemonic help crafted, via the phrase “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” OF COURSE one should know the order of operations, to help out in understanding formulas in the ordinary course of reading scientific or even lightly technical material. But I think it is bewildering why people enjoy tweeting or facebook-posting a clotted formula (with numbers, not variable letters) and issuing a challenge along the lines of “Nobody can get this math problem right on first try!”. I think these absurd questions may appear on some standardized tests, so people want to help prepare their kids; or the use in tests valorizes these o-op puzzles as actual math.

    My issues with these order-of-operations puzzles are: 1) Well, they aren’t really math problems. 2) They’re generally written with just numbers, not variable letters. In most actual contexts for seeing a printed formula, multiplication is not indicated by a mark but is shown by adjacency — maybe one numerical coefficient attached to a grouping of one or more variable letters. 3) In the ordinary course of reading scientific or technical material, if you ever need to stop and ask yourself “Wait, how is this grouped?” it would be because either the author got a little careless, or the levels of parentheses and exponents would be too much of a mess if written totally explicitly. But in these puzzles, the formula is constructed to be poorly written (by normal reading standards) and under-parenthesized, so that you are supposed to worry about applying details and subclauses of somebody’s formalization of order-of-operation rules.

  6. I wonder what my very educated mother is doing these days now that Pluto got demoted.

  7. I don’t think the red sky at morning one even works for the “New World” — on the East Coast, most weather comes from the west, so a red sky at sunset might be warning you of unusually high precipitates in the atmosphere that will soon be upon you. I think in Europe the weather flows in from the east (from the land mass to the sea), so there it makes sense to get a forewarning of what the atmosphere is like in the east by the sun shining through it and being blocked thus turning colors.

    Granted, I’m not doing research and basing most of this from what I learned in Kindergarten in New Jersey, that the way the weather man knows the weather is he calls up his friend in Ohio, and asks what the weather is like there… But either way, I would be highly suspicious of a weather saying that comes from Europe being applied to the East Coast of North America…

  8. My most useful mnemonic, which apparently dates from the 1890s, and passed on to me by my father:

    We are just making money at just valuation. Here, Tommy, pleast take five pence but leave Jane, good honest girl, a cool hundred.

    (I could write another sentence to bring it up to date, but haven’t felt the need. And no, my father was not alive in the 1890s, so he probably learned it from his father or some other older person.)

  9. Not a mnemonic, but the mangled mashup of same in the panel reminds me of

    Thirty days hath Septober,
    April, June, and no wonder,
    All the rest have peanut butter,
    Except my grandmother–
    She has a little red tricycle.

  10. The “red sky” mnemonic is Biblical, which means it is at least 2,000 years old:

    ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’ – Matthew 16:2b-3

  11. I was trying to make it “Kings of England” and was starting to read the “List of English monarchs” page at wikipedia, when it came to me.

  12. For the sequence Shrug and Danny are doing, I have (as in my previous comment) a sing-songy recital that keeps me on track, plus in the middle part a story-action visualization that takes a couple names as verbs: Tyler POKE Taylor, Fillmore PIERCE Buchanan — Lincoln

  13. There is a block in off-Loop Chicago bounded by streets named Monroe, Jefferson, Madison, and Clinton. The main building-cluster in that block is called Presidential Towers.

  14. Thirty Days Hath Septemeber,
    All the rest, I can’t Remember.

    “I wonder what my very educated mother is doing these days now that Pluto got demoted.”

    Last I heard, she was serving us noodles…..

    Music camp instructor: So the G major scale has an F sharp, the D major has an F and C sharp, the A major scale has F,C, D sharp and so on. The order of these sharps are, F,C,G,D,A,E,B. You can remember these by “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”. The F major scale has a B flat and the order of the flats is B,E,A,D,G,C,F. And you can remember that as B,E,A,D spells “bead” and … I guess just “gakuff”…… So I went home to make up my own mnemonic…. Thinking of the “Every Good Boy Does Fine” mnemonic for the notes on the lines of a treble clef and “My Dog has Fleas” which ….um, isn’t a mnemonic? …. I came up with “Behind Every Acrobat Dogs Go Crazy Forever”…. proud of my dadaesque absurdity I told a friend… he was like “why didn’t you just do the sharps backwards”. I said “huh”. He said “You know. F,C,G,D,A,E,B…. B,E,A, D, G,C,F?” …”…”…. “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle; Battle Ends and Down Goes Charlie’s Father?…”

    I’m not sure why the camp instructor wasn’t aware of this.

    My music instructor in college said he wanted to have the phone number 526-3741 but Pacific Bell wouldn’t let him.

  15. I occasionally volunteer with a forest restoration group. If course, we have to be careful of poison ivy — in particular, we can’t put it on the burning brush piles, because then the smoke will cause problems for all of us who are allergic.

    We’ve joke-modified the slogan though: “Leaves of three, great T.P.”

  16. “We are just making money at just valuation. Here, Tommy, pleast take five pence but leave Jane, good honest girl, a cool hundred.”

    Mnomenics shouldn’t be harder to memorize than just the items. The “Camels often sit down carefully – perhaps their joints creak? Early oiling might prevent permanent rheumatism” is the most graphic and thematically consistent mnemonic I know, but it is danged impossible to remember. Even if you do remember it, its hard to remember what the letters stand for.

  17. Well, the discussion has certainly proven one thing: If you don’t know what a mnemonic is supposed to be for, it will not help you figure it out.

    On the other hand, they can take root in the brain well after they are any use. Back in the late ’90s, I learned a mnemonic for what PCMCIA (as in the expansion cards for computers) stands for. “People can’t memorize computer industry acronyms”. So, to this day I remember the joke one, not the real one, and it is obsolete. I may as well have memorized a mnemonic on proper buggy whip technique.

  18. I had to learn how to crimp an RJ-45 connector onto the end of a CAT5 (or 5e, or 6) cable. Thank heavens I didn’t often need to do that on the job. One of the tricky parts was getting the eight color-coded internal wires laid out in the right order. I did hear some mnemonics for that , but never remembered them. The usual recourse was to pull out a reference picture!

  19. Mitch4: Undoubtedly made-up story is that when someone asked Einstein what his phone number was, he had to look it up in the phone book. When questioned about this, he replied “Why should I memorized something I can easily look up?”

    I think there’s something to be said for that, though it depends on the information and the circumstances. Paramedics and emergency room doctors, for example, should have a lot of stuff memorized. Wiring plugs? A reference card in the toolbox is fine for that. For myself, I spend all day writing and editing things and I will frequently look things up in an online dictionary and I will also check finer points of usage (such as AP style vs Chicago) so we comply with a client’s preference. My look-ups are just me being thorough and confirming details. However, because I’m doing this online, everywhere I go is now throwing adds for Grammarly at me. 😦

    And FWIW, I’m aware I post some clangers here as I’m quite lax about the proofreading when I’m not paid to do it. I appreciate y’all indulging me.

  20. Orange-White, Orange, Green-White, Blue, Blue-White, Green, Brown-White, Brown.
    If anybody wanted to know.

  21. reporting today from Atlanta, the skies this morning were quite red because of smoke from the west coast. But the weather forecast this weekend is dry and mostly clear, for the first time in a couple of weeks.

  22. Undoubtedly made-up story is that when someone asked Einstein what his phone number was, he had to look it up in the phone book. When questioned about this, he replied “Why should I memorized something I can easily look up?”

    Yes, undoubtedly made up. But I think about this concept often. As we humans evolve, we become, for lack of a better word, dumber. My kids laugh when they see that I still have an atlas in my car. And I’m sure it’s deserved as I am fairly ancient. But if we ever lose access to the internet for some reason, how do we navigate? And the same can be said for myself. My ancestors could be self sustained. If some catastrophic event happened, would I be able to survive? I don’t hunt, have had a garden but it’s only good for a few months. So I would be lost as I expect many would. Just some random thoughts on a Friday.

  23. @Dysfunctional,

    “I wonder what my very educated mother is doing these days now that Pluto got demoted.”

    The song now goes, “My very educated mother just served us NOTHING. NOT A DAMN THING.”

  24. Mark M: There are a lot of basic survival skills that most of us don’t know because we don’t need to. Instead, we specialize in learning something else, make some money and pay for the basics with that and (if things have gone well) have something extra to do other things with. That’s a great thing. That not everyone isn’t involved in the process of barely staying alive, resources are freed to go into some very remarkable things. The downside is that those skills are utterly foreign to most and they’d be hard pressed to survive if everything sideways.

    That said, those skills can be learned, if desired. And access to the information is probably easier now than before. But it does mean putting resources (the most important of which is time) into learning them. So, learning camping skills or hunting and fishing skills is great if that’s a hobby you want to pursue. But if you’re going to get expert at it, well, you’re going to stink at other stuff, like growing a garden or building a house or medicine. If you devote your entire life to all that survivalist stuff, then that’s all you’ll be doing.

    I’d say our best strategy is not to learn to garden and hunt, because that won’t support the whole population. Rather than doomsday prepping, we’d probably be better off in working toward a sustainable and just society that ensures we can all live dignified lives.

    Having a few reference books on paper wouldn’t be a bad idea, though. 🙂

  25. As an Astrophysics major, the stellar classes were denoted by: “Oh Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me.”

  26. We’ve been getting lots of the smoke haze here as well. Yellow moon at night and colorful sunsets.

  27. @ larK – “I think in Europe the weather flows in from the east ”

    In this bit of Europe anyway (Englandland) most of the weather comes in from the west, but every now and then we get a surprise turn, such as The Beast from the East – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_British_Isles_cold_wave : “Anticyclone Hartmut (dubbed the Beast from the East (Irish: An Torathar ón Oirthear)) was a storm that began on 22 February 2018, and brought a cold wave to Great Britain and Ireland.”

  28. woozy: “Mnomenics shouldn’t be harder to memorize than just the items.”

    Well, sure, and obviously I did/do not find the presidential (up through Benjamin Harrison) mnemonic I cited at all difficult to remeber; your mileage may vary. (The chalice in the palace reeks of malice… wait… start again.)

    On the other hand I am bemused by mnemonics for things that I find as easy to remember as my middle name, like the names and order of the planets of the solar system (even if one throws in the mythical Vulcan, the Asteroid Belt, Pluto, and the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty plus years, and the planets and hangers-on are as familiar to me as the suburbs of my city. (Probably more so. Certainly more so than the strange lands that lie outside the boundaries of eldritch St. Paul, across the river.)

  29. There are many assumptions computer programmers make about time, and not all of them are true.

    Does every day have exactly 24 hours? Ask a programmer and he’ll likely tell you about leap seconds, and how time can potentially go 23:59:59, 23:59:60, 23:59:61, 24:00:00. But he might not remember that one day a year is 23 hours long and one day is 25 hours long.

    A long time ago, it happened that a steel mill used a computer to automate part of its operations. Molten steel would pour into a mold, and the mold had to remain shut for a precise amount of time. In order to be sure to avoid time drift, the computer would regularly call a time service. But it used local time, not UTC. And so, one fatal night, when the time service said it was 2:30 a.m. the mold opened one hour early and molten steel spread throughout the factory.

  30. Shrug…. I was being tongue in cheek somewhat. And I have to consider anyone how paraphrase “the Court Jester” a soulmate. (well, one exception…. in college… I … won’t traumatize you with details).

    An irritating thing is unneeded mnemonics. “The way to remember the directions of a compass is ‘Never Eat Sog….'” “The way to remember the directions of a compass is they are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST! Because that’s what they are!”

    Here’s a good one. Can anyone get a bearing on what this on is pointing at:

    Timid Virgins make Dull Company… add Whiskey.

  31. The basis of the morning-red thing, such as it is, is that because outside of the tropics weather moves more or less west to east, and the sky is red when the sun is illuminating clouds opposite it, in the evening it means the clouds are past you and in the morning it means they’re gathering.

    woozy: because the sharps and flats go in circle-of-fifths order, all you need to remember is which one you (conventionally) start with. (And beware Bartok, who sometimes liked to do other things with them…)
    It is not wrong, but like most such tidbits, not super accurate in production.

    Also, another thing I’ve found as I get older is that stuff that I had at my fingertips when I was a nerdy 14-year-old is no longer always as fluent, and sometimes these phrases are useful for shaking things loose, or being sure the item you recall is correct. Sometimes. Other times… well, for one, I’ll never understand why anyone has to memorize the order of the planets by rote.

  32. ok, I am sure that when I wrote that, the “it is not wrong” sentence, which belongs to the first paragraph, was actually attached to it.
    growl.

  33. The red skies thing is for sailors, remember. It can work on land but is not so reliable. It has to do with the prevailing wind direction in latitudes European and American sailors often used.

  34. There are many versions of it that aren’t specifically about sailors. And it doesn’t really work any better at sea: the direction is a loose approximation, clouds (even cloud banks that persisted overnight) don’t always translate to storms or even rain, and storms will only occasionally be positioned correctly relative to the terminator to be approaching and visible at sunrise.

    But also, sailors spent a good chunk of their time in the tropics where it doesn’t work at all.

  35. “because the sharps and flats go in circle-of-fifths order, all you need to remember is which one you (conventionally) start with. ”

    Yes. Exactly. But when you are in the seventh grade you don’t know these things. Of course doing Fifths in you head isn’t that easy (but if you realize every other one increases decreases by one it not so hard….. FcGdAeBfCgD……). The endless up and down mnemonic “….ends-battle-father-charles-goes-down-and-ends-battle-father-charles-….” will work for whatever you need to know. Major scales in order of number of sharps…. Start with C. Then actual sharps in order of introduction… start with F. Minor scales in order of number of sharps…. start with A.

    Thats the deal with the phone number….. 5 2 6 3 7 4 1(or 8).

    “The red skies thing is for sailors, remember.” But there is a “shepherds” version. All with grain of salt. Never been of any use to me anywhere I’ve ever lived or visited.

  36. I know the kings (rulers) of England one, but only up to Henry III. I’ve seen it up to Victoria but haven’t been able to memorize it.

    Willie, Willie, Harry, Steve
    Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three

    And planets, and star classes, and the Kings Play Chess on Five Green Squares for taxonomy. But I have zero clue what either the making money or the camel one is. Oh, OK, making money is the presidents. That might be worth learning.

  37. “Orange-White, Orange, Green-White, Blue, Blue-White, Green, Brown-White, Brown.”

    I know it the other way around starting with brown, but this is not enough, you also have to know how to hold the cable and connector to make a stndard cable. In my case (from memory, and I haven’t made a cable in almost ten yers) Cable down clip outside and from right to left Brown etc.
    G

  38. A quick Google search reveals the Camels Sit Down mnemonic, though it usually starts with Pregnant Camels.

  39. Thanks, GiP. Since my sequence was meant for left-to-right, and your opposite-order sequence was meant for right-to-left, we are in complete agreement. And of course as you point out, there are many more things to get done right — including what neither of us has mentioned so far, what kind of cable you’re making in the first place! “Drop” cables and crossover cables are different, and then there are other conventions and standards too.

    But for me the hard part was just physically handling everything and lining them up without pulling something out at the same time. And stripping all the wires to the same length. (We tried out the plugs where the metal contacts had tiny sharp spears meant to puncture the inner-wire insulation and contact the wire without stripping. But this had its own problems.)

  40. GeeEEZ! Thanks to jjmcgaffey for the hint that that money mnemonic was about presidents, I went through to match it up, since I recently spent time memorizing the presidents — NON mnemonically — and let me tell you, that mnemonic actively gets in my way! I got stymied right at “just”, took me the longest time to realize “Jefferson”, which, of course, I don’t need any mnemonic for, he’s the third freaking president, three is a number you can fully visualize and see at once, you don’t need any tricks, and yet this mnemonic had me going, “just? j? who the heck is j?” And never mind about memorizing this phrase — I think if I had to memorize the phrase, I would do so by remembering that each word was the same as a president, and reconstruct it that way…

  41. On the cable colors, the sequence offends my sense of order. If Orange and Orange-White are together, and Brown and Brown-White, what in the world is the point in separating Green and Green-White and reversing Blue-White and Blue? That’s just mean.

  42. Xedo, it’s obscured by not discussing the function of the different wires. I wouldn’t be able to specify it myself but someone could look it up. The requirement is that you don’t have to mark the two ends of the cable segment identifiably, so you can plug it in either way and expect it to work. AND what working means is that the output from one socket leads to the input of the other.

  43. I wonder if anyone needs a mnemonic to remember the days of the week or the months of the year.

  44. If an anglophone American is asked for the day in the middle of the week, the vernacular “hump day” could be a help in recovering Wednesday as the answer. A German speaker would not need even that much help to come up with Mittwoch as the answer!

  45. This is not relevant, except slightly to the Frazz: I was recently having trouble with a word puzzle about screwing in a screw, involving two 6-6 words differing only in their first letters. No luck until someone told me it involved a rule of thumb phrase, and bingo: righty-tighty, highty-tighty. Never saw the latter before; seems to be a British variant of hoity-toity.

  46. Treesong, you may know the expression “the hoi polloi”, meaning the masses or the common folk. It presents a couple issues for “purists” and prescriptivists. First is that the Greek expression already includes the definite article, so the English “the” is an extra one, and should be omitted. The other is that some English speakers take a different meaning, almost the opposite of the usual one — the elite or the pretentious. Despite sort of rolling my eyes about the prescriptivists, I have to agree that since it has a clear and established meaning, it’s just looking for trouble to use it for almost the very opposite.
    But a point getting back to your comment, is that I propose the theory that the meaning of “elite, upper class” could come from sound association with “hoity toity”.

  47. Most Very Educated Mothers Can Just Straight Up Name Planets Having Minimal Errors. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Hakumea, Makemake, Eris.

    I use the days of the week as a mnenomic to remember the classical planets, which is tricky, because I only speak English. If I knew the days of the week in Spanish, Italian, French, etc, then the days of the week would literally be the classical planets: Domingo-Sun (you just have to remember that the Catholic Church decided to swap out the Sun for Jesus), lunes-Moon, martes-Mars, miercoles-Mercury, jueves-Jupiter, viemes-Venus, sabado-Saturn.

    Since I speak English, I have to take another step and remember the way that the Romans were aggressively syncretic and came up with syncretisms between Germanic/Norse gods and Roman gods/planets.

    Sunday-Sun. That’s easy. Monday-Moon. Easy, as well. Tuesday-Tiw is like Mars, because they’re both war gods. Okay, EVERY Germanic god is at least partialy a war god, but that’s the only thing Tiw has going, so he gets the match. Wednesday-Woden is like Mercury because they both have a role in ferrying the souls of the dead to the afterlife. That’s a pretty big stretch, I think — Woden does a LOT of other things besides being in charge of the Valkyries who only take SOME of the dead, anyway, but it’s what they did, and post-integretation-into-the-Roman-Empire, Mercury/Hermes picked up some of Odin’s associations with magic and poetry. Which is weird, but that’s how cultural synthesis and syncretism works. Thursday-Thor is like Jupiter because they both are in charge of thunder. Okay, I can buy that one. Friday-Frigg is like Venus because they are both the god of love. That one works just fine — personality-wise, they couldn’t be more different, but it’s the same domain of control. Saturday-Saturn. We just took that one into English — in half the Germanic languages, “Saturday” was “Hot Water Day” or “Washing Day”; English came from the other half which just stuck with Saturn.

    So I remember the classical planets by going through the English days of the week, remembering the Roman/Germanic syncretism, back-forming to the Roman gods, and then those are the planets.

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