Fun with mnemonics

If you've been writing 'pneumonic,' you've got it all wrong

A friend wrote that she had a great way of remembering a complicated topic. “I created a pneumonic device,” she said. And an article discussing the power of rhymes and songs for children said, “They’re also handy pnemonic devices—most of us probably first memorized our ABCs by singing that famous song!”

Of course, both meant “mnemonic.” But since the first letter is silent in both cases, and words beginning with a silent “p” are far more common than words beginning with a silent “m,” it’s not hard to see how that mistake happened.

“Mnemonic” is from Greek and Latin words having to do with memory; in Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory, and gave birth to the Muses (Zeus was their father). A “mnemonic” or “mnemonic device” is a simple way to remember something more complicated; for example, remembering the acronym HOMES to remind you of the names of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

Very few “mn” words are active today, and even all the old ones related directly to “memory.” In 1913 came “mneme,” which The Oxford English Dictionary says is “The capacity which a substance or organism possesses for retaining after-effects of experience or stimulation undergone by itself or its progenitors.” In other words, the basis of the ability to remember. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary defines “mnene” as “the persistent or recurrent effect of past experience of the individual or of the race.” But you won’t find those often.
“Mnemonic,” or at least the reminder of a memory, is in part responsible for the creation the word “meme,” the transmission of behaviors, information, or themes through culture. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme” in 1976, wrote that a “meme” “could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même,” or “same.”

The mistake of spelling “mnemonic” with a silent “p” could be in part because it sounds so much like “pneumonic,” relating to the lungs. We’re also familiar with “pneumonia” and “pneumatic.”

Those “pneu” words all derive from the Latin for air pressure: “Pneumonia” is a condition that impairs breathing; “a pneumatic drill” uses air pressure to drive the drill bit.

Many more words begin with a silent “p,” of course. There’s the whole family of “psych” words; the “ptarmigan,” a type of grouse; and the beloved but extinct “pterodactyl,” among other.

But if you want a “mnemonic” to remember which words start with silent letters, you’re knot going to get one here.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.