This weekend was Guy Fawkes Night, which is a yearly UK holiday. It commemorates a guy (named Guy) who tried to blow up parliament in 1605. To show that cruel acts of terror like this have no place in our civilised and peaceful society, we burn Guy Fawkes at the stake. Well, an effigy of him these days. Plus, there are fireworks. It’s one of the British holidays that I find it harder to relate to (as opposed to, say, Early May Bank Holiday, which is my favourite). Therefore I keep forgetting the date.
But wait, isn’t there a handy mnemonic to help here? Yes there is! It even rhymes. Here is how it goes: “Remember, remember, \\ the fifth of November. \\ Gunpowder, treason, and plot …” (After this, people usually trail off a bit, suggesting that they don’t actually remember, remember it all that well.) Here is the important point though: This mnemonic is utterly useless. The reason why it’s useless is that the thing that you are supposed to remember (the date) is not worked into the thing that helps you remember it (the rhyme). The first, third, fourth, sixth, eighth, tenth, and twelfth of November would fit equally well. It is, I suppose, useful if you are so clueless as to not even remember the month. Let’s say you are the one person in the world who keeps confusing Guy Fawkes Night and Early May Bank Holiday. Then maybe. But then again, “September” and “December” also rhyme with “remember”. So, there is considerable ambiguity, with 24 days in the year actually being a possible fit that would work with the rhyme. Which is why I usually only truly remember it’s Guy Fawkes Night when I hear the fireworks going off around me.
This annoys me, because I am actually a big fan of mnemonic devices. They work for me. Also, I like the way they use language. Rhymes or near-rhymes for instance, as for the wives of Henry VIII: “Divorced – beheaded – died \\ divorced – beheaded – survived” Or rhymes coupled with alliterations, such as in “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”. Or interesting imagery such as in “Gehst Du Alter Esel Heute Fischen?” (In which an old donkey is asked whether he is going fishing today.) It’s meant to help you memorise the major scales in order of the number of sharps (e.g. G major has one sharp, D has two, etc.) Some internet research tells me that the English equivalent is “Go Down And Eat Bread, Father Christmas”. Nice, but not as nice as a fishing donkey.
I am fascinated by how these mnemonic devices work. How can we remember them so well, and with so little effort? And why are they so persistent, even when the thing they are meant to make you remember has long faded away?
For instance, I still like to think that “Kings Play Chess On Fine Green Silk”, even though modern genomics efforts have made the traditional species classification system (Kingdom – Phylum – Class – etc.) somewhat obsolete.
Even more weirdly, though I am not sure I can name every Greek Muse, I remember extremely well the mnemonic we were taught in school in order to remember them: “Kilometertal \\ Euer Urpokal.” This translates, roughly, to “Kilometer valley, your primordial cup.” Maybe you are thinking that something must have gotten lost in translation there. It has not. This makes exactly as much sense in German as it does in English.
More weirdly still, there are mnemonics that I remember, where I don’t even remember what they were about. For instance, “Ohne Bier Ausm Fass Gibts Koa Mass” (Without beer from the cask, there is no beer mug.) What does it mean? I am pretty sure it’s not really about beer. I think it was meant to make me remember a sequence of letters, and I vaguely remember it being about astronomy. But really, no clue. Maybe it will come back to me when I watch the fireworks …