It’s fair to say that Richard—an ennobled great-grandson of King Edward III—dying at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 probably isn’t the most well known of historical facts. But when you retell that story as “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain,” then it suddenly becomes a bit more familiar: an obscure occurrence from the early days of the Wars of the Roses has become immortalized as a mnemonic to remember the colors of the rainbow.
But there’s more to mnemonics like this than just remembering colors. From royal wives to birthstones, here are some memory-building sentences to give your general knowledge a boost.
1. “A BIG SECRET CONCEALS HER PAST” // HENRY VIII'S WIVES
Everyone knows the rhyme “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived” to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives—but which wife matches which fate? Mnemonics used to remember the six wives’ names are tricky, not least because there are three Catherines to contend with (some of whom sometimes have their names spelled with a K rather than a C). But when all else fails, try remembering the appropriately evocative sentence “A Big Secret Conceals Her Past” to help recall the dramatic lives of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.
2. “MOTHER VISITS EVERY MONDAY, JUST STAYS UNTIL NOON” // THE PLANETS
Until the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006, the line “My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets” helped a lot of people remember the order of the planets from nearest to furthest from the Sun. You can still use the same line and drop the P, of course, but with only Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune to recall, how about the eight-word “Mother Visits Every Monday, Just Stays Until Noon.”
3. “HAPPY HENRY LIVES BESIDE BORON COTTAGE” // THE CHEMICAL ELEMENTS
From symbols and atomic numbers to groups and periods, any chemistry student knows there’s plenty to remember when it comes to the periodic table. But when it comes to remembering the names of the elements themselves, how about “Happy Henry Lives Beside Boron Cottage.” That not only helps recall the names of the first half dozen elements (hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, and carbon) but also their chemical symbols (H, He, Li, Be, B, C—so long as you know which elements have two-letter rather than one-letter symbols, of course). But if you want to remember the first 20 elements, you’ll have to remember a bit more about Happy Henry and his friends:
Happy Henry Lives Beside Boron Cottage, Near Our Friend Nelly Nancy MgAllen. Silly Patrick Stays Close. Arthur Kisses Carrie.
From “near” onwards, that’ll help you remember nitrogen (N), oxygen (O), fluorine (F), neon (Ne), sodium (Na), magnesium (Mg), aluminium (Al), silicon (Si), phosphorus (P), sulphur (S), chlorine (Cl), argon (Ar), potassium (K), and calcium (Ca).
4. “SUPER HEROES MUST EAT OATS” // THE GREAT LAKES
Remembering that the names of the five Great Lakes spell the word HOMES is one thing, but when it comes to remembering them in order of size from largest to smallest surface area, try “Super Heroes Must Eat Oats”—Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, Ontario. Want to know them from left to right on a map? Swap those superheroes for “Super Man” who, it’s worth remembering, “Helps Every One.”
5. “KING PHILIP CAME OVER FOR GOOD SPAGHETTI” // ZOOLOGICAL TAXONOMY
Unless you’re a zoologist or a taxonomist, you might not need to know the hierarchy of the chief taxonomical classifications all too often (depending on how difficult your local pub quiz is, of course). But when need be, just remember that time when “King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti,” or that “Kings Play Chess On Fine Glass Surfaces,” and you’ll easily recall the order of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
6. “BIG GORILLAS EAT HOTDOGS, NOT COLD PIZZA” // CENTRAL AMERICAN COUNTRIES
If you struggle to remember the names of the seven countries of Central America, remember that “Big Gorillas Eat Hotdogs, Not Cold Pizza”: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
7. “EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOR” // TREBLE CLEF NOTES
In music, the mnemonic “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor” (or “Football,” or “Ferraris,” depending on what your incentive of choice is) is such a well known method for remembering the notes on the lines of the treble clef that it’s been immortalized as both the title of a Tom Stoppard play and a 1971 album by the Moody Blues. If you’ve ever had a piano lesson you’ll also know that the four spaces in between the lines spell FACE.
8. “ALL COWS EAT GRASS” // BASS CLEF NOTES
As for the bass clef? “All cows eat grass” is a neat way of remembering the four bass spaces ACEG, while the five lines either side of them can be used to spell out the fact that “Good Boys Deserve Favor Always.”
9. “FATHER CHARLES GOES DOWN AND ENDS BATTLE” // THE ORDER OF THE SHARPS
Another musical order worth remembering is that of the sharps added to successive keys. So while the key of C major has no sharps at all, G major has an F sharp; D major has both an F and C sharp; A major has an F, C, and G sharp; E major adds a D sharp into the mix; B major adds an A sharp; the key of F sharp major needs an E sharp; and all notes are sharped in the key of C sharp major, which adds a final B sharp into the mix. All told, it’s a bit of a muddle on its own, but if you bear in mind that “Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle”—or that “Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds”—then you can’t go far wrong.
10. “GOOD DOGS ALWAYS EAT” // VIOLIN STRINGS
From lowest to highest the notes to which the strings on a violin are tuned spell out “Good Dogs Always Eat.”
11. “ELEPHANTS AND DONKEYS GROW BIG EARS” // GUITAR STRINGS
Memorize that sentence to remember the notes of the six strings in a standard guitar tuning.
12. “GREAT ACTORS ALWAYS DEVELOP EVERY POSSIBLE RESOURCE, PERFECTLY SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES TO TRIUMPH” // BIRTHSTONES
Keep the above sentence in mind, and you should be able to remember the order of the 12 traditional birthstones, garnet (January), amethyst (February), aquamarine (March), diamond (April), emerald (May), pearl (June), ruby (July), peridot (August), sapphire (September), opal (October), topaz (November), and turquoise (December).
13. “ANOTHER TOM CAT, CAUGHT NAPPING” // ROMAN EMPERORS
Need to remember the first batch of Roman emperors? “Another Tom Cat, Caught Napping,” put another way, is Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.