‘Call the doctor! There’s a fork in Ma’s leg!’
Let’s not forget when considering the pitfalls of mnemonics
Get it? “Ma’s leg” sounds phonetically just like the Hebrew word מַזְלֵג, which means “fork.” So the next time you’re in an Israeli café and your place setting is missing a fork, all you have to remember is — an image of your mother with a fork in her leg?
Such are the pitfalls of mnemonics, or memory devices. Some take up permanent residency in our brains (who could forget Roy G. Biv?), while others seem to get express check-in and check-out.
As a language teacher (and learner) of several decades, I’ve always been fascinated — and frustrated — by vocabulary acquisition. After learning the basics as a baby and toddler, how do we amass vocabularies that researchers variously place between 20,000 and 30,000 words? (Some estimates go as high as 40,000 to 50,000.)
For a number of years, back in the days when a high SAT score was the golden ticket to college admission, I was a verbal instructor in an SAT prep course. If you’re of a certain age (if you remember analogies, you’re old enough), you probably recall suffering through lists of arcane words like, well, “arcane.” The common refrain among my students was, “How am I supposed to learn all these words?” The short — and snarky — answer was, “Have you tried reading some books?” But these kids needed to up their scores, and fast. What they wanted was a get-rich-quick scheme for their vocabularies.
Learning word roots will surely help — and for some of us, etymology is an endlessly fascinating subject — but for the average 11th grader, just mentioning Latin or Greek means you’ve lost half the battle. Inevitably, someone would mention picture flash cards. These learning aids purported to help students acquire vocabulary through associations with various images. I clearly remember the card for the word “avaricious.” It showed a girl, Ava, greedily gobbling a bowl of rice. See? Ava + rice = greed = avarice! That’s great, provided you make the right association when you encounter “avarice” on the test. It’s possible, however, that the best your brain will come up with under pressure will be thoughts like: “A girl named …? Something to do with rice? Cooking? Steaming? …” Mnemonic devices work only when we can retrieve them without asking our brains to jump through too many verbal hoops.
I reminded my students that any mnemonic device also must be meaningful to the user. Take the word “cajole,” which means to coax someone into doing something, often with flattery. I have an older brother, Joel, who often got me to do chores by sweet-talking me and playing on my younger sibling naivete. Obviously, I’ll never forget the meaning of “cajole.” But if your brother’s name is Bruce or Steve or Chaim, or if you don’t have a brother, this verbal trick won’t help you.
My students often asked how I knew so many big words. I always answered that I regularly come across words I don’t know and — yup — look them up. But I also confessed that my parents were both English teachers, so our home was somewhat atypical (read: I heard a lot of big words). Both from immigrant families, my mother and father were as madly in love with the English language as they were with each other. They met in a graduate English course at the University of Maryland, when one day my mother leaned over my father’s desk, pointed to his notebook, and remarked that his use of the word “psittacismaic” was a bit off the mark. (This word, which refers to speech or language that is mechanical or repetitive, is obsolete today and, I’m guessing, was fairly arcane even in 1947.) My dad was smitten, and they were married six months later.
Over the years, my parents’ verbal gems became the stuff of family lore. The love letters from their courtship contain footnotes (one from H.L. Mencken; how romantic!) and an asterisk pointing to a past participle that “may be archaic and dialectic.” My oldest daughter was her grandpa’s “pulchritudinous” first granddaughter because “beautiful” just wouldn’t do. My siblings and I still laugh over family code for our dog’s nightly outing: It was a “nocturnal perambulatory experience” because our pooch would go bonkers if we used the word “walk” in his presence.
You get the idea.
But if you don’t happen to be the progeny of English teachers, how do you get all those words to stick? And what happens in your brain when you’re trying to learn a new language? Which brings us back to “Ma’s leg,” taught to us by an Israeli shelicha who stayed with our family one summer. She came to New Jersey to work in a local Jewish day camp and teach some basic Hebrew to her campers. Some of the other goodies in her bag of verbal tricks were the oft repeated:
בַּיִת (bayit = house) That’s a nice house; I’d like to
דָג (dag = fish) DOUG, could you please pass the fish?
(Although, Doug, like Ava and the rice, really doesn’t have any intrinsic connection to fish.)
Interestingly, my whole family remembers these examples from more than 20 years ago. What made them so sticky? Well, they’re undeniably silly. And linguists have noted that the stranger and sillier the scenario of your mnemonic, the more likely you’ll remember it.
All this came back to me recently while I was standing on the security line at Ben Gurion Airport. As I fumbled with getting my belongings onto the conveyer belt, I noticed one of the security agents holding up an empty gray storage bin. My laptop apparently needed to be placed in its own מַגָּש — ma-gash. An instant mnemonic was coined: “Oh MY GOSH, I forgot to put my laptop in a separate bin.” (Magash is also the word for a serving tray or platter, which I knew, but airport security lines have the tendency to make my mind go blank.)
It turns out that an Israeli linguist, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann, has created his own lists of these mnemonics, also known as “linkwords.” Here’s my favorite: “In the living room you can meet Beethoven, but come into my kitchen and MEET BACH.” (The Hebrew for kitchen is מִטְבָּח, pronounced meet-bach.)
Since my magash revelation, I’ve amused myself by creating some more Hebrew-English linkwords:
לְטַלטֵל (l’taltail): to shake. The dog shook its TAIL.
לְנַעֵר (l’na-air): another word for shake. I think of agitating a liquid, which increases the AIR inside it.
אני ממליץ/צה (ani mamlitz/ah): I recommend. MOM! LET’S go there.
תְּנוּעָה (t’nuah): traffic. NU? When is this traffic going to let up?
Try creating some of your own linkwords over these next few weeks when your mind can’t seem to focus on anything besides where to get extra matzah cake meal. I guarantee it will have you chuckling (HA-CHA) through your Passover preparations (הֲכָנוֹת, hachanot).
Ann Brodsky of Fair Lawn is an enthusiast of all things language-related. She is a lifelong educator, now at Hunter College, as well as an editor and translator.