Mnemonics: Background information when reading Ostrich

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A Novel

by Matt Greene

Ostrich by Matt Greene X
Ostrich by Matt Greene
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    Aug 2013, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Ellis Smith
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This article relates to Ostrich

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In Matt Greene's Ostrich, protagonist Alex Graham is obsessed with mnemonic devices. How did mnemonics get their start?

Simonides of Ceos was a Greek poet in the sixth century B.C. As the story goes, he was asked to recite an ode at a nobleman's banquet. Simonides began his speech, as was customary, by thanking the gods – in this case Pollux and Castor, twins who were later transformed into the constellation Gemini. But the nobleman did not appreciate sharing the limelight with the gods. Simonides would get half of his fee, the nobleman said, and if he wanted the rest he could ask the gods themselves to pay him. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was called out of the room. Two men were supposedly at the door to see him. He went to the door but no one was there. While he was away, the banquet room collapsed, killing everyone. So perhaps Simonides had indeed been paid by the gods? That was the end of the story – or not. The bodies of the dead people were so mangled they were unrecognizable. Simonides, however, was able to call on his visual memory to remember where each person had been sitting and was able to identify everyone.

The Greek poet, Simonides This is how mnemonics was born. The loci method, in this case. This technique is often used to remember a speech and works by creating a list of loci or places, associating an object to be remembered with each place, and then associating the objects with a subject or section of the speech. For example, if you want to remember a speech, you can create a list of places in the room where you will speak – the room's door, a window, a fireplace, a stairway. Then you associate an object with each part of your speech - a heart might represent the part about love. You then create an image assigning each object to one of your places: in this case, if you assign the heart to the fireplace you can create a mental image of the heart "warming" itself by the fireplace. Then when you give your speech, you could "walk" through the locations in the room, remember the corresponding objects, and be easily reminded of the correct section of your speech. This technique is also called a memory palace and is a staple at many memory competitions. The loci method is especially good for kinesthetic learners – those who learn by being physically active or doing things.

In its simplest definition, mnemonics is any learning method used to retain information – translating it into a form that the brain can more easily remember. The idea is that spatial, visual, personal, and even humorous methods are infinitely easier to recall than an abstract one. Mnemonics are most often used to memorize lists or numbers. Dates or even whole speeches can also be recalled this way. There are many different kinds of mnemonic devices:

  • Acronyms – used to remember lists. Take the first letter of each item on the list and create a word or phrase. HOMES, for instance, to remember the Great Lakes (Heron, Ontario, Michigan, Eerie and Superior.) Or Every Good Boy Does Fine to remember the order of musical notes (EGBDF.) Acronyms can be used to remember how to spell a word too such as a rat in the house may eat the ice cream to remember how to spell arithmetic.

  • Rhymes – used to remember facts such as:
    Thirty days hath September,
    April June and November
    All the rest have thirty-one,
    Excepting February with twenty-eight days clear,
    And twenty-nine in each leap year.

  • Imagery – used to remember words, phrases or ideas. For instance to remember a foreign language, find a word in your native language that is similar to the foreign word and create a phrase around it. To memorize the word estar, which is the Spanish verb to be, you could more easily remember the phrase "to be a star."

  • Organizing and Chunking – used to remember many forms of information. A familiar one is the way telephone numbers are divided into three groups: 800-555-6666 is easier to remember than 8005556666.

Mnemonic devices can make information retention easier for students with learning disabilities; they can also assist elderly people with memory loss; and they can help anyone, really, who wants or needs to remember something.

As the short excerpt below illustrates, Alex from Ostrich, is really into mnemonics:

Every mnemonic I remember just reminds me of another slightly weirder mnemonic, with each one in turn taking me a step further away from the answer until the whole thing loops back on itself and starts again from the beginning like a snake eating its own tail: My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets to My Very Economical Mother Just Saved Us Nine Pencils to My Very Elegant Mother Just Sewed Us Nine Purses to My Very Edible Mother Just Shat Us Nine Pizzas to My Very Elephant Mother Just Sawed Us Nine Porpoises to My Very Endless Mother Just Sank Us Nine Pygmies to My Very Enema Mother Just Sand Us Nine Problem to My Very Egg Mother Just Syphilis Us Nine Probably...

Um, right. You can get carried away with mnemonics too.

Picture of the Greek poet, Simonides, from

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This article relates to Ostrich. It first ran in the October 16, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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