Whether you’re a high school student studying for the SAT before the new edition rolls out in 2016, a student for whom English is a second or foreign language, an avid reader who encounters difficult words regularly, or just a logophile, remembering what words mean can be a constant struggle.
There are countless vocabulary books, flash cards, and smartphone apps that promise to help you memorize words. But from our experience, and from the testimonies of hundreds of students, they are collectively ineffective because they require constant use. Sure, they’re helpful for short-term retention but not nearly as much if the exam is months away. And if you want to remember the meanings for life, forget it.
So what is the best way to retain vocabulary words?
Simply, mnemonics are memory-assisting devices. They can be patterns of letters, ideas, images, associations—anything that can help you remember.
Here’s one such mnemonic. It’s for the word curmudgeon.
Here’s another one. This time, it’s for melange.
Want more? Here’s a simple one for ubiquitous (definition: everywhere, commonplace).
As you can see, the letter “u” is ubiquitous in ubiquitous: it’s at the beginning, middle, and end of the word.
We can go on forever and turn this into the longest article in the history of Medium, but we’ll spare you and just post a list of links to mnemonics we’ve created over the years.
Haters of mnemonics usually cite the following as reasons to avoid them:
- They take too much time to devise.
- Some words are too easy and don’t require mnemonics.
If you’re trying to make the kind of mnemonics we shared above (i.e., on a computer using Photoshop), then yes, it would take a lot of time. But 99.99% of people don’t need to. (We are the .01% because that’s precisely what we do.) Something like the following is just as effective as any of our productions. Here’s a mnemonic a student made in two minutes for winsome (attractive in appearance or character):
And the second complaint is a moot point: if the word is too easy and doesn’t require a mnemonic, then don’t make one! Make mnemonics only for the words you have trouble remembering. Problem solved.
If it takes more than five minutes to come up with a mnemonic, don’t make one. Write sentences using the word instead. Use the word in conversation.
The amount of time it takes to make an effective mnemonic pales in comparison to the time wasted on studying and inevitably re-studying the same words on flash cards and apps or in vocabulary books. Moreover, few activities in life are as tedious as memorizing flash cards—at least to us and the people we know. On the other hand, devising mnemonics can be (dare we say it?) fun!
We bet that if you paid attention while you read this post, you’ll remember curmudgeon, melange, ubiquitous, and winsome for the rest of your life. That’s the power of mnemonics.
As we conclude this article, here are the links to our mnemonics for other vocabulary words. Enjoy!