August 25, 2006

Make Very Excellent Mnemonics: Just Start Using Noggin!

As Interplanetary Linguistics Week continues here at Language Log, let's return to Geoff Pullum's post about planet mnemonics back on Sunday, when it appeared that the International Astronomical Union might add three new planets to the current lineup. The IAU chose instead to banish Pluto, leaving us with just Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. So what's a good Pluto-less mnemonic to replace old ones like "My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas"?

A few science educators are reporting that they're switching to:

My Very Excellent (or Educated, or Elegant) Mother Just Sent Us Noodles

Boooring! Surely we can do better. My first suggestion was:

My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Naugahyde

...but somehow I doubt that will catch on. Let's see some other attempts.

Here's a selection from the comments section of the Scientific American blog:

My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nowhere

My Very Evil Mother Just Sent Us Nothing

My Very Educated Mother Just Said "Um, No"

Many Venetian Explorers Might Just Sail Until Nightfall

My Very Elegant Mnemonic Just Stops Under Nine

And here are some submissions to the mnemonic contest:

My Vision, Erased. Mercy! Just Some Underachiever Now
(as spoken by Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh)

Most Vexing Experience, Mother Just Served Us Nothing!

Molesting Very Excitedly, Michael Jackson Sucks Underage Nipples

Most Virgins Eventually Marry Jocks So Unscrupulously Naughty

Some submitted haikus like this one:

Most Vegans Envy
My Jovian Silhouette,
Usually Not also accepted mnemonics for the old nine-planet lineup from contributors who wanted to protest the demotion of Pluto. Indeed, the winner and one of the runners-up stuck with the old arrangement:

My! Very Educated Morons Just Screwed Up Numerous Planetariums

Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet

As for the eight-planet lineup, the memory aid that seems to have the greatest chance of success is this one, which has appeared in a few places:

Mary's Violet Eyes Make John Stay Up Nights

Some say this evocative mnemonic actually dates back to the era before the discovery of Pluto. Afterwards, it was extended by the addition of another word like Period, Plenty, Pining, Planning, Praying, or Pondering. Now John can go back to staying up nights without any extraneous words.

[Update, 8/30: On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Barry Popik reports finding early evidence for "Mary's Violet Eyes" and another planet mnemonic:

14 March 1934, Winnipeg Free Press, pg. 8:

Do you find it hard to remember the order of the planets in their distance from the sun?

If so, you may find it helpful to use a "memory sentence." Here is such a sentence: "Men Very Early Made Jars Serve Up New Potatoes."

The initial letter in each word in that sentence is the first letter in the name of a planet. Thus we may write it this way: "Men (Mercury), Very (Venus), Early (Earth), Made (Mars), Jars (Jupiter), Serve (Saturn), Up (Uranus), New (Neptune), Potatoes (Pluto)."

If you get the sentence clearly in mind, I think you will have little trouble in remembering the order of the planets, Mercury being closest to the sun and Pluto farthest away. There are two "M's" but Men starts with "MR," the same as Mercury; and Made with "MA," the same as Mars.

A similar memory sentence, told to me by a friendly reader, was used in the old days before the planet Pluto was known. The sentence was, "Mary's Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 25, 2006 11:28 PM