[ Issue 45 ]

'Mnemonic' fascinates Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to 'Mnemonic'


Harlish Goop here discourses on the seemingly unrelated topics of lungs and memory.  From the linguistic point of view, that is, not the medical.

I've scoured the Internet and all my reference books, but so far I've been unable to find anything vaguely resembling a linguistic discussion of the phenomenon. It doesn't take much, however, to understand how might this have come about.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Though I’ve tried hard in this column, it hasn’t been easy to resist the temptation.

I mean to say, how does a logophile go on ignoring particular trends in modern English usage? A few infractions, I suppose, are not so difficult to overlook, but all one can do when confronting the other abominations is, as I said in Issue 43 (May 2004), “partly clothe my complaint in humour”.

Take the word mnemonic and its derivatives, for example. You may recall that it’s come up before in our mag, in one of Fizzgig’s “Kwizzes” (Issue 31, May 2002) and in Issue 5, January 1998, where this column treated you to Bikwil’s very own “self-referential definition (all rights reserved), henceforth to be taught worldwide as the only true and useful meaning of acronym”.

Derived from the Greek for “remember”, this lovely word mnemonic has been with us from at least the 18th century, which interestingly puts it in English 100 years before the semantically similar aide-memoire.

And now for the bad news: in the 21st century it’s being written in certain quarters — wait for it — as pneumonic (= “pertaining to the lungs”).

I kid you not. In fact, when I first began noticing it (on the Internet, naturally), I too thought that its usage had to be jocular. Not so sure now, and to my knowledge it hasn’t yet appeared in print. Give it time.

Many Internet examples have a medical flavour, so it must be an in-joke among med students, as this chest x-ray site shows:

I make liberal use of mnemonics (which I call pneumonics).

The ones that really enthral me are those written by teachers for students. (All the following are utterly genuine examples.)

For instance, this Study Guide for Grades 3 - 8 perpetrates the following picturesque piece of plausible pedagogy:

A Lukasa or memory board is a way for the Luba people to remember their history and tradition. The different colored beads and the way they are arranged are pneumonic devices to help people remember. Can you think of pneumonic devices we use in our life today? For example, remembering the notes on the piano by using initials like Every Good Boy Deserves Fun. Use pneumonics to remember something you are trying to learn.

Here’s another earnest one, for Year 11:

Chances are you've probably used pneumonics to help you remember something in the past, but didn't know that it was called a pneumonic! A pneumonic is a word or phrase that is made up from the first letters of a sequence which you're trying to remember. For example, if you're trying to remember the order of the planets, take the first letter of each planet and [make] a phrase . . . My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets.

A third example for children has this:

What pneumonics did you write to help you remember the order of the Ten Commandments?

And law students aren’t neglected, either:

[Harry Lorraine's] Pneumonics is a system whereby one is able to associate particular objects with a picture in the mind's eye, with the picture being associated with a particular number.

Need I go on?

Well, I’ve scoured the Internet and all my reference books, but so far I’ve been unable to find anything vaguely resembling a linguistic discussion of the phenomenon. It doesn’t take much, however, to understand how might this have come about.

For starters, mnemonic sounds not too dissimilar to pneumonic, so we can deduce that those erroneously using the latter word instead of the former have never seen mnemonic written — or, as sometimes happens, didn’t take any notice when they did see it. And secondly, foreign borrowings are quite susceptible to this off-hand treatment these days, when fewer and fewer English speakers learn a second language. I’ve even seen And, walla! for And, voilŕ!, though that one just might have been humorously intended.

A well-intentioned and unhumorous example I encountered in my working life was the phrase on mass, for en masse. What took the cake there was the fact that it was written by a consultant in technical writing.

Could it be that this Mnemonic Plague is really just an outbreak of SGLS (Silent Greek Letter Syndome)? No, pneumonic also starts with an unsounded consonant.

All of which brings to mind a maths teacher I had in high school. A stickler for accuracy in all things, he was very keen for us to pronounce the name Ptolemy correctly:

Just remember that the t in Ptolemy is silent like the f in banana.

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