The Friday Fillip: Memory

I have a memory that might be described as variable. On the one hand I’m lousy when it comes to remembering when things happened in my past. Oh, I can tell you that I lived in D.C. before I came to Toronto, but if you press me for dates, I’d have to gaze into the middle distance and try to come up with clues as to the years (months are long gone). So I can remember social things in rough order but can’t really map them onto a timeline.

On the other hand, I can tell you exactly what you’ll find on certain pages of the version of Laskin’s Land Law in use in 1966 or how to get from the Fasanvej stop on the Cophenhagen Metro to the Frederiksberg Garden even though I’ve only made the trip once.

Then there are those (few) things I know because I learned them by rote. The power of rote memory was brought home to me while I was at an English boarding school which, like many, specialized in sweaty-palms learning: we were instructed to learn in a day all of the prepositions in Latin that took the accusative and all that took the ablative. To this day I can reel them off into an uncomprehending universe. These take the ablative:

a, ab, absque, coram, de
palam, clam, cum, ex and e
sine, tenus, pro and prae.
Add super, subter, sub and in.
When state not motion tis they mean.

(I’m delighted to discover that these very exercises still exist and are online. So now that they’re available I can forget them. Right?)

You might notice that they’re arranged in a sort of verse set out so that a line goes bump-tee, bump-tee, bump-tee, bump. Rhyme and rhythm make strings easier to learn by rote, something known forever, I’d guess — which is partly why I can still sing the words to all the stupid wonderful pop songs I heard on the car radio back when I was in highschool. Another reason might have to do with the fact of the girl(s) in the seat next to me in the car and the heightened emotional state this produced. Whereas you could make it a matter of life and death and I still couldn’t remember a single moment from my highschool classes, except the embarrassing time Mrs. Hill chastised me for reading science fiction or the time Mr. Giese caught me and Pat Fink singing harmony in biology class.

You won’t be surprised to find that a number of these elements — visualization and emotion particularly — feature in a technique called the Memory Palace used since the year dot for memorizing a large number of things, be they words, names, dates, whatever. Here’s a TED talk by Joshua Foer in which he explains this method and how you can remember hundreds of things quite easily.

Of course, the question is why would you want to? Way back when, culture was oral and learning was hearing and remembering; then writing was seen, by Plato at least, as an unfortunate development because it would:

produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves.

How much more is it true now in the time of the internet, where everything, including my old Latin grammar lessons, is able to be recalled via the new Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory Google.

Yet there are times when the internet is not available to me and I’m in need of . . . amusement, I suppose I have to say. It’s then that I regret I haven’t memorized enough poetry. (I mean, how many times can you hear “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . ” and stay sane?) It would be truly enjoyable if I were able to recite at will, even silently, a mere dozen or so verses from my favourite poets — instead of having to fall back on the lyrics to Purple People Eater. Or Latin prepositions.


  1. Simon, I too learnt this little poem in school in Ireland. I don’t think that “clam” belongs there; besides, the line doesn’t scan if it’s there.

  2. Hi Angela

    How cool to know another person who faced this ordeal at school.

    “Clam” is in the version I learned, though, and in the online version as well. And I do think it scans

    a’ ab abs’que cor’am de’
    pal’am clam’ cum ex’ and e’

    at least in the schoolboy sing-song I used.

    Besides, leaving clam out would give it no home in the roster of prepositions — and then I wouldn’t have learned this beautifully appropriate word for secretly (and, of course, “unknown to”, as a preposition.)

  3. How interesting you mention the Memory Palace–I mention it here in the On Firmer Ground blog: