The following contains excerpts from Tendency columnist Kent Woodyard’s first book Non-Essential Mnemonics: An Unnecessary Journey Into Senseless Knowledge. Born on McSweeneys, out now from Prospect Park Books.
If, upon hearing the word “mnemonic,” your first thought is not of a machine powered by pressurized gas or of a 1995 science fiction movie starring Keanu Reeves, then congratulations! You may be among the 1% of American citizens who know what a mnemonic device is. And, if you truly are one of those fortunate “one-percenters”, then the odds are exceptionally good that one or all of the mnemonics you know is listed below.
- Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally
- Roy G. Biv
- Every good boy does fine
- My very educated mother just served us nachos
- Dear King Phillip, come over for good spaghetti.
When it comes to mnemonic devices in written English, these are “The Classics,” and—like most everything we now call a “Classic”—90% of what you’ve heard about them is a lie. (Add 2% for every year spent in a public school.)
Fortunately (for you), while compiling the mnemonics for this book, I have ranged far and wide across the Earth and have uncovered the truth about these “Classic Mnemonics” that high school principals and home school moms have spent the past half-century burying. Feast your eyes on the facts below, and then write your 4th grade teacher a letter listing all the things she was wrong about. (SPOILER ALERT: It was everything.)
My Dear Aunt Sally: A Mother To Us All
The Order Of Mathematic Operations: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” = Parenthesis, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract
Whether or not you have an aunt named “Sally” and whether or not the thing she did is excusable, there is no denying that the officially sanctioned mnemonic for the order of mathematic operations is one of the most misunderstood memory aids the world has ever known. Depending on which translation of The DaVinci Code you trust.
Using techniques I won’t pretend to understand, 8th Grade algebra teachers have traced “My Dear Aunt Sally” as far back as the Euphrates River Valley circa 25,000 BC. Of course, in those days, our mouth-breathing forebears had little use for anything that wasn’t covered in fur, including and especially: the solution to (3 × 5) / (9 – (3 + 15)) – (115 × 2).
What they did need, however, was an easy way to remember what day it was. So they came up with a simple mnemonic device to remember the days of their adorably prehistoric week.
“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” = Paleolithic Era: Monday, Darkday, Anotherday (x4), Saturday
(They threw the historical epoch in there for some reason. Don’t ask me why.)
With the exception of Darkday, which we now call “night,” much of the Paleolithic week is still in use today. Unfortunately, the mnemonic device was rendered obsolete in 325 A.D. when the Catholic Church invented Sunday. The mnemonic then endured 1,600 years of disuse and shame that persisted until the discovery of multi-step arithmetic in 1932. Our dear Aunt Sally was reintroduced to polite society and we’ve been apologizing for her ever since.
Roy G. Biv: Sex, Lies, and Visible Light
Colors In The Visible Spectrum: “Roy G. Biv” = Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet
To properly understand the legend of Roy G. Biv, one must first understand his twin brother Ron G. Biv. According to their shared Wikipedia page, Ronald and Roderick Biv are twin brothers, separated not so much by birth as by decades of acrimony and betrayal. And a restraining order.
With identical faces, nearly identical names, and a family history of alcoholism, it is small wonder that Ron and Roy’s relationship was colored from the start by bitterness and embarrassing public outbursts. Despite all of those indicators, however, the two actually got along brilliantly until 1954 when NBC tabbed Ron Biv as their mnemonic of choice for the newly created color-TV spectrum. (Note: As originally proposed, the visible color spectrum was to include the colors Red, Orange, Neon Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.)
Ron was, of course, thrilled by the honor and spent several months tie-dying all of his upholstery. Roy, for his part, was less enthused. Aligning himself with Crayola’s powerful “Yellow Concern,” he began lobbying NBC leadership to replace neon green with yellow. Keep in mind that in the late-1950s yellow was still a novelty color—favored by taxi drivers and banana enthusiasts but failing to gain a foothold nationally.
Until the space race, that is. After gaining the moon, The US set out to put a man on the sun, and yellow became an emblem of American Nationalism. Meanwhile, through no fault of his own, Ron’s neon green came to be associated with the hellish jungles of South Vietnam—an association from which NBC was eager to distance itself. Neon green became yellow and Roy’s job was done.
In the intervening decades, Roy has, of course, become a household name, making a handsome living for himself by hosting mud runs, rainbow christenings, and VIP glow stick parties. Ron, on the other hand, has faded into unhappy obscurity. Inexorably tied to his beloved neon green, Ron—like the color itself—has not been seen in public since the late 1980s.
In a belated, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at reconciliation, Roy Biv petitioned Congress in 1994 to make Ron the federally recognized mnemonic device for a handful of lesser cities in Pakistan. To date, Ron has made no indication that he accepts (or even knows about) this pandering consolation prize. Nor has he ever acknowledged yellow as a real color. More’s the pity.
Ron G. Biv = Rawalpindi, Ormara, Naseerabad, Ghazluna, Bahawalpur, Ispikan, Vitakri.