Memory Tricks


For credits, see final note

How do you remember the colours of the rainbow?  I don’t know how young people learn this these days, but no doubt with something more meaningful than the line I was taught in school (but which is obviously still with me!): “Richard of York Gained Battles in Vain”.  The seven words give you the seven colours, in order – as long as you remember what each letter stands for.

So how do French people remember the same colours?  There’d be no point in talking about Richard of York, for a start.  Having looked up a website on French mnemonics (or memory aids) I found the phrase: “Vous inventez bien, vous, jeune oisif ridicule”.   Very broadly, this might be translated as “You tell a good story, you daft young loafer”, but the meaning is for our purposes irrelevant.  All that matters is the order of the words, which obviously represent “violet, indigo, bleu, vert, jaune, orange, rouge”.

Have you seen what happened there?  Not only do French people drive on the right, they also see the colours of the rainbow upside down!  No, I’m only joking: I know perfectly well that driving on the right is the norm throughout the world, and that the British way is quite odd.  But I found this French version of the rainbow mnemonic really interesting, because clearly it is much easier for French to start a sentence with the V of “vous”, rather than trying to find words starting with “R” and “O”. I hadn’t thought of that until coming across this little learning aid. (I also notice that there are two words here beginning with “v”, which makes the scheme a little less robust than the English version, but let’s not get too picky.)


In other cases the tricks that people use can be much more similar in the two languages. For example, what is your method of remembering stalactites and stalagmites?  Is it to say that stalagmites grow with all their might, while stalactites have to hold on tight? Or is it to see the “c” of the first as standing for ceiling, with the “g” pointing to the ground?  Either way, you can no doubt appreciate the most frequent French method, which is to say that “les stalagmites montent” (rise) while “les stalactites tombent”.  I’ve always thought this was a beautiful parallel between the two languages.

So where is this leading?  Well, having exchanged some comments with readers about the apparent difficulties of French I just wanted to remind you of the various ways that people devise to remember things in whatever language they are dealing with.  These mnemonics can take various forms.  Take, for instance, the French word “propre”. Used after the noun, where most French adjectives appear, it means “clean” in English; but placed before the noun it means “own”.  So “ma propre voiture” is my own car, whereas “une voiture propre” is a clean car.  Easy – and before you disagree, just think about the English word “quite” which can mean either 100% or just a bit, as in either “I am quite sure/disgusted”, or “The meal was quite nice”: try explaining that to a foreign learner…

So, back to “propre”.  When I learned this word some time around 1960,  there was still an airline called the British Overseas Airways Corporation.  (Try putting that on the side of a plane these days!)  It was, thankfully, known as BOAC, and the way we were taught to remember the dual meaning of “propre” was to think of “Before Own, After Clean”.   Clearly it would be absurd to teach that particular mnemonic these days, but let’s suppose you made up something like Body Odours Annoy Customers.  You could be as inventive as you like – the only condition to be met is that you remember the detail in question.

Try this one.  “Propre” isn’t the only adjective to change meanings when placed either before or after a noun – there are five or six of them.  For example, the word “ancien” means “old” in the sense of ancient or aged when it follows the noun, but placed in front of the noun it means “former” in the sense of previous or “ex”.  Apart from the fact that you could reasonably say the literal meaning of “old” ties in with the normal position after the noun, could you think of some other way of remembering the difference? (I’ve never learned one, so this is a genuine question – do let me know if you think of anything…)

Picture credits:

“Where Rainbow Rises” is a photo taken by Wing-Chi Poon, and kindly made available on Wikimedia Commons.  The photo of stalactites holding on tight is by Dave Pape, and from the same source.  My thanks to both.

About Fields

We are a retired couple who lost our only grandchild, Grace, at the age of ten weeks. We would like to share our memories of Gracie, but especially our experience of bereavement.
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