Acronyms: Weird Word, Excellent Mnemonic!

There are a lot of different memory techniques that you can use to learn material for class. The one I’m going to talk about today is called an acronym. This is a word that you make by taking the first letter or first few letters of each word you’re trying to remember and then using these to spell a new word. We actually use these all the time; the word SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Another acronym is NABISCO, which stands for NAtional BIscuit COmpany. Here’s an acronym you might already know, which, unlike the last two, is meant as a memory aid rather than only creating a shorter word: ROY G. BIV, which stands for the colors of the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet). If you already use this acronym to remember these colors, you can see that acronyms can be very handy.

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Acronyms are easy to use; let’s look at an example of how it’s done. Let’s say you had to learn the names of the Great Lakes for a Geography class. The names of these lakes are Ontario, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. To make an acronym, write down the first letter of each word and move the letters around until you spell something. Here, that would be HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior). Now take your time and think about the word HOMES and the names of the Great Lakes that begin with each of its five letters. After a few rehearsals you’ll know the Great Lakes perfectly.

Another example: the three Axis powers of the Second World War were Germany, Japan, and Italy. Can you think of an acronym to remember them? I’m thinking that you came up with JIG. I’m also thinking that you will have no problem remembering this word, and that once you think of this word, you’ll have no problem remembering the Axis powers.

As you come up with acronyms, keep these things in mind.

1) Try to spell a real word. Some students have told me that they use made-up words, but I think this makes things needlessly hard.
2) It’s best if one of the words you need to learn starts with a vowel, or else you’ll have trouble spelling any word you can reasonably pronounce. You can get around this, though, even if it might make the acronym slightly more difficult to remember. If I had to memorize three large cities for some–New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles–I could add a vowel to make the semi-acronym CLaN. I would actively imagine the consonants as uppercase and the extra vowel as lowercase to remind me that only the uppercase letters stood for anything.

Acronyms can really help you come exam time. In later posts I’ll talk about different memory aids.

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