In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and other mnemonic devices wanted. Apply within.
October 15, 2007 5:09 PM   Subscribe

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Great, Columbus=1492, got it. What else you know? I'm looking for silly and/or clever ways to remember history.

As I'm getting older, I'm finding that I often horribly embarrass myself with my appalling knowledge of history and events. My problem is that I can't seem to retain the information. I've had the Middle-east conflicts summarized and explained to me several times. I've read about wars in various contexts. I've learned all the capitals, world leaders, evolutionary timelines, biblical events...repeatedly. It just doesn't stick.

However, you play me the first two bars of any song and I can tell you the entire lyrics. I must know 10,000 songs, but can't name 10 presidents. Acronyms stick too. I will go to my grave knowing exactly who ROY G. BIV is referring to. Or that Kings Play Chess On Fine Grained Sand. Ask me to name a king and I'm stumped.

I'm looking for mnemonic devices, acronyms, poems, songs, quotes or other things that could help me remember historical events. Things that are memorable, catchy, contextual, or otherwise clever.

No events are off limits here. Bring me your religion, your human evolution, your historical obscurity. Painfully obvious historical references will be just as valued as well.

Other examples of the type of information I'm seeking:
  • The States Song (I don't actually know it, but I know there is one)
  • The President's Song (ditto)
  • Oh how sad, I can't even come up with a third example. Allow me to repeat myself. "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

    Thanks! I'm sure I'll be singing (and smart) in no time.
  • posted by iamkimiam to Education (54 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
    The Animaniacs have a great song that lists every single country in the world. It came out a few years ago, so a few of the countries have been renamed, but it is definitly worth checking out.
    posted by thebrokenmuse at 5:18 PM on October 15, 2007

    Animaniacs: Presidents, Countries, State Capitals.
    posted by ALongDecember at 5:24 PM on October 15, 2007 [4 favorites]

    The book An Incomplete Education is fairly good for this sort of thing, at least for contextualizing knowledge and making it funny, clever, and unexpected enough to remember. May be worth checking out.
    posted by occhiblu at 5:25 PM on October 15, 2007

    School House Rock! Elbow Room I remember most for the "It was our Manifest Destiny!" line.
    posted by lovecrafty at 5:28 PM on October 15, 2007

    Since everyone is a huge fan of the Badger state I will assume this is preaching to the choir...but...

    In 1848, Wisconsin became a state.

    posted by ian1977 at 5:37 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    The Norman Kings of England jingle:

    Willy, Willy,
    Harry, Steve
    Harry, Dick, John
    Harry Three.
    posted by Rumple at 5:38 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Guy Fawkes: Remember remember the fifth of November...

    Paul Revere: Now listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Twas the eighteenth of April in '75; hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year...

    Henry VIII's wives: beheaded, divorced, died, beheaded, divorced, survived

    The band They Might be Giants have a number of songs that are useful in this connection, though not always of dates that are especially significant. For example their song James K. Polk.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 5:44 PM on October 15, 2007

    I still know the preamble to the US constitution thanks to School House Rock. Seconding that.
    posted by lilac girl at 5:45 PM on October 15, 2007

    I remember some of the details about Jamestown from Disney's Pocahontas:

    In 1607, we sailed the open sea
    For glory, god, and gold and the
    Virginia Company.

    The fates of the wives of Henry VIII can be remembered as "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived". Not entirely accurate, but close enough.
    posted by sephira at 5:45 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Battle of Hastings 1066, William the Conqueror started his tricks.
    posted by Neiltupper at 5:51 PM on October 15, 2007

    Oops- yeah, I screwed up the wives thing - should be "divorced, beheaded..." not the other way round.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 5:51 PM on October 15, 2007

    Also, Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire is actually in chronological order.
    posted by ALongDecember at 5:52 PM on October 15, 2007

    I know a vastly disproportionate amount about Oliver Cromwell owing to this song.

    "Then, he smashed (Ire-land!)" seems a bit inadequate, but the song still has a ton of info.
    posted by ibmcginty at 5:53 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    I'll second sephira's version of Henry VIII's wives. The first one is the one he famously divorced, breaking with Rome and creating the Anglican Church.

    We learned the song "Fifty Nifty United States" (YouTube, lyrics) in grade school, and I swear it's come in handy hundreds of times since. It's very useful at pub trivia night (especially outside the US, where people think "New England" is a state). And remember that episode of Friends where they tried to list all fifty and Ross couldn't do it? I was laughing.
    posted by web-goddess at 5:53 PM on October 15, 2007

    On the 50th anniversary of the US, 4 July 1826, the second and third Presidents died within a few hours of each other.

    At 11:00 on the 11th day of the eleventh month of 1918, World War I ended.

    P.S. Since I hadn't read this thread yet, my version of Billy Joel's song, We Didn't Light No Candles, in honor of jessamyn's recent birthday, lists her MeFi highlights in no particular order. Sorry!
    posted by rob511 at 6:24 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    I second the mention of Schoolhouse Rock. When I was in fifth grade we had to memorize the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Most of the class groaned the moment the assignment was given, but I just wanted to laugh. I thought, "memorize it? Hell, I'll sing it for you right now!"

    Also to this day I often find the Schoolhouse Rock version of counting by 3's useful. "3-6-9, 12-15-18, 21-24-27, 30."
    posted by dnash at 6:30 PM on October 15, 2007

    Well, in eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip*
    along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
    We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
    And we caught the bloody British near the town of New Orleans.

    We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin.
    There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
    We fired once more and they began to runnin'
    down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

    *Plays music. You were warned.
    posted by anaelith at 6:40 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    [continuing from anaelith]
    ...Well, we fired our cannon til the barrel melted down,
    so we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
    We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind,
    and when they tetched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.

    ...okay, not helpful, but awesome.

    Also, this:
    Willy, Willy, Harry, Stee,
    Harry, Dick, John, Harry three.
    One, two, three Neds, Richard two,
    Harry's four, five, six, then who?
    Edwards four and five, Dick the bad...
    Harry's twain, Ned six (the lad)
    Mary, Bessie, James you ken...
    then Charlie, Charlie, James again.
    Will and Mary, Anna Gloria,
    Georges four, Will four, Victoria.
    Edward seven next, and then
    came George the fifth in 1910.
    Ned the Eighth soon abdicated
    Then George the Sixth was coronated
    After which Elizabeth...
    and that's all folks until her death.
    posted by blahblahblah at 6:45 PM on October 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

    "William the first was the first of our kings (not counting Ethelreds, Egberts and things)"


    "John, John, bad King John, shamed the throne that he sat on; not a scruple, not a straw, cared this monarch for the law..."

    Both from this book.
    posted by dersins at 6:59 PM on October 15, 2007

    2nding ibmcginty on Monty Python's Oliver Cromwell song. Not only do I know a scary amount about Oliver Cromwell, but when I was taking AP European History I actually used the dates in the song to align other nations' timelines to English history for about the century on either side of Cromwell (that would be 1499 to 1758, which is a ridiculous chunk of time for one song to help me with, but I could remember that so and so was monarch of such and such country when Oliver was going to be born in 40 years, etc etc). It was incredibly useful.

    I think it's pretty sick that my entire conception of European history now rotates entirely around a Cromwellian axis - but hey, I'm Irish, I think it's sick that Cromwell was born.
    posted by crinklebat at 7:31 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

    It doesn't just cover history, but Check out this book.
    posted by drezdn at 7:42 PM on October 15, 2007

    How about movies?

    For instance, there are about five different movies about Elizabeth I that have come out in the last few years -- and plenty of older ones.

    A really fun way to learn about history -- and probably to retain info, since our brains hook onto stories -- would be to watch, say, three movies about an important event or person back-to-back.

    Of course, movies tend to take great liberties with history, but to some extent, if you watch three about the same event, they'll self-correct each other. And you can further the correction by reading the Wikipedia article on the whatever the movies feature.

    This is such a good idea (let me pat myself on the back), I may do it myself. I wish there was a website that went through history and listed movies associated with the periods and people! Maybe I'll start one.

    One example:

    "Julius Caesar" (Shakespeare/Brando) / "I, Claudius" / "Rome" HBO

    Oh, and if you'd rather read, you could do the same thing with historical novels.
    posted by grumblebee at 7:52 PM on October 15, 2007

    A humorous video of mnemonics for the bar exam.
    posted by Frank Grimes at 8:12 PM on October 15, 2007

    TMBG has a song about James K. Polk. Because of this, there is a bright spot in my knowledge of non-Lincoln 19th century presidents.
    posted by TeatimeGrommit at 8:15 PM on October 15, 2007

    Well, I still have the Preamble memorized thanks to Schoolhouse Rock, too... but I got marked wrong on a test in elementary school thanks to it. I was pretty mad at the time 'cuz I assumed Schoolhouse Rock would never lie to me. But alas, my childhood innocence ended on that dark day.

    Here's the Preamble as Schoolhouse Rock sings it:
    "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union..."

    Here's what it IS:
    We the people OF THE UNITED STATES, in order to form a more perfect union..."

    Just so's ya know. The rest of the song is correct. I guess the whole thing just wasn't as catchy to sing.
    posted by miss lynnster at 8:21 PM on October 15, 2007

    Just remember that Columbus didn't JUST "sail the blue." Because,

    In 1492,
    Columbus sailed the blue!
    With ants in his pants and smelt in his belt,
    In 1492!
    posted by bibbit at 8:59 PM on October 15, 2007

    There's a song from Pinky and the Brain called "A Meticulous Analysis of History." It's a little light on content but what's there is totally awesome.

    Caligula was no boy scout,
    He did things that we can't even talk about.
    The Romans knew he'd lost his head
    When he filled a vacant Senate seat with Mr. Ed.

    posted by miagaille at 9:41 PM on October 15, 2007

    Also, Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire is actually in chronological order.

    I have a new respect for this song.
    posted by Afroblanco at 9:49 PM on October 15, 2007

    I live for these.

    For remembering the planets in the solar system:
    My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us ...Nothing
    Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune
    (That's how I amended it from "...Nine Pizzas" after Pluto was fired.)

    Kings Play Chess on Fridays, Generally Speaking
    Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Much more memorable than "on fine grained sand," IMHO.

    Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
    Parenthesis Exponents Multiplication Division Addition Subtraction (the order in which you should attack a math problem)

    And one I created years ago during my psych 101 class, but is oh-so-meta:
    You can always remember that the Hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory, because hippocampus sounds like hippo, which makes you think of an elephant, which is famous for its memory. Or lack of memory? I forget which -- I guess that means a new mnemonic!
    posted by prophetsearcher at 12:36 AM on October 16, 2007

    MetaChat on a new mnemonic for the revised solar system.
    posted by rob511 at 12:57 AM on October 16, 2007

    "Lackland" John was a right royal tartar
    'Til he made his mark on Magna Carta.
    Ink, seal and paper on Runnymede Green
    Anno Domini Twelve Fifteen.
    posted by boudicca at 1:04 AM on October 16, 2007

    *Ahem* As recounted by my daughter the other night...

    Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain

    Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet she corrected my singing "I can sing a rainbow"
    posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:14 AM on October 16, 2007

    The original U.S. national campaign political song: "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!" originally published as "Tip and Ty."
    posted by paulsc at 1:14 AM on October 16, 2007

    I used the Sesame Street technique to get me through my A'level histrory exams. We were supposed to put dates in our essays to show that we knew our facts, but I'm terrible at remembering numbers so I choose some particularly choice years, when lots had happened, and memorised as many events as possible from those years.

    The events didn't have to be particularly dramatic, but I figured, I'd at least be able to pepper my essays with some dates. I think 1534 was one (Church of England, Luthor's New Testament, new Pope...), and possibly 1492 was another.

    Pretty much every essay I wrote for that exam featured the years 1534 and 1492.
    posted by Helga-woo at 1:26 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

    In 1666, London burnt like rotten sticks.
    posted by markdj at 1:43 AM on October 16, 2007

    A little more obscure than history, but if you ever want to know Bowen's Reaction Series to figure out the order in which minerals will crystalise out of a magama...

    Open Please Another Bottle oF Malibu Quickly.

    Olivene, Pyrozene, Amphibole, Biotite, Feldspar, Muscovite, Quartz.

    Monumentally useful in daily life, I assure you.
    posted by twirlypen at 5:41 AM on October 16, 2007

    Incidentally, they crystalise out of a magma in the same order as they do out of a magama. Whatever that may be.
    posted by twirlypen at 5:43 AM on October 16, 2007

    Nobody has done the Great Lakes yet?

    Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior.
    posted by Sk4n at 7:27 AM on October 16, 2007

    Previously... and the mnemonics tag on the blue and green)
    posted by enfa at 7:49 AM on October 16, 2007

    Okay, they're not all history songs but:

    Jonathan Coulton has a nifty song about the U.S. presidents.

    They Might Be Giants wrote about the sun, Istanbul, as well as the already mentioned Polk.

    Moxy Früvous wrote songs on entropy, mitosis [direct mp3 link], and photosynthesis.
    posted by krazykity16 at 8:40 AM on October 16, 2007

    Psh, TMBG only covered the Sun song. The original is not only far quainter, but comes with whole albums(!) of other science songs. Warning: A few are outdated, or maybe just fashionably early, I'm convinced that someday we will be back to a six planet solar system... And anyway, that's all beside the point since the OP only wanted History/Social Studies stuff.

    Back on topic, how about a shipwreck -- The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
    posted by anaelith at 10:27 AM on October 16, 2007

    Willard Espy "An Almanac of Words at Play" and "Another Almanac of Words at Play" has lots of stuff like this, plus it's a really fun book. Only found one on amazon.

    anaelith I didn't need to open the link to get the music in my head, thank you very much. >: <
    posted by nax at 11:42 AM on October 16, 2007

    My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Up Nut Pie

    Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto

    Learnt that when I was 6 or so and it has stuck with me. Currently in the process of teaching it to my 6yr old.
    posted by mycapaciousbottega at 2:06 PM on October 16, 2007

    mycapaciousbottega, you didn't get the memo?

    My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos.
    posted by ALongDecember at 2:18 PM on October 16, 2007

    Response by poster: Wow. WOW. WAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWWWW. There are so many best answers that if I marked them all, this page would be so sage!

    That link to the We Didn't Start the Fire video is and dates of everything mentioned!

    Oh, as of today I believe that Mycapaciousbottega's Very Educated Mother Just Serves Up Nut. So sad what has become of her since Pluto's gone. ;)

    These answers are awesome! Are there more? What about evolution? dinosaurs? stories of the bible? chronology of wars?
    posted by iamkimiam at 3:23 PM on October 16, 2007

    To spell Saskatchewan:
    Send A Silly Kid Ahead To Catch Harry Eating Worms And Noodles
    posted by evilcolonel at 10:07 PM on October 18, 2007

    And of course,
    30 Days Hath September
    April June and November
    posted by evilcolonel at 10:08 PM on October 18, 2007

    Ohhh, ohhh, I know this one! For the months, if you can never remember the rhyme, make a fist. Say the months and tap each knuckle and space-between-knuckle going down your fist, thusly:

    high (January) low (February) high (March) low (April) ...

    When you run out of knuckles, start again with high coming back, thusly:

    high (August) low (September) high (October) ...

    Months where you tapped the space (low) instead of the knuckle have fewer days than high (knuckle) months. The high months all have 31 days.
    posted by anaelith at 1:03 AM on October 19, 2007

    30 days in September,
    April, June, and November
    All the rest have 31,
    Except February alone,
    Which has 28 in fine,
    And threatens to ruin my little rhyme,
    Except for leaps years, once in four,
    When February has one more.
    posted by sephira at 4:02 AM on October 19, 2007

    For Henry VIII:

    "Prince Hal of York to six wives was wedded;
    one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded."

    (I saw a post or two mentioning Henry, but not this rhyme.)

    PLUS, here are some random ones not related to history:

    - To tell the difference between a white rhino and a black rhino, think "white = wide" because the white rhino has a wide, square snout, and the black rhino has a tapering, triangular snout.

    - SOHCAHTOA: my very first physics teacher spieled this to us as "an old Indian word," though he was being tongue-in-cheek. It's just a nonsense word for remembering the three main trigonometric functions: for sine, you divide Opposite side over Hypotenuse; for cosine, you divide Adjacent side over Hypotenuse; for tangent, you divide Opposite side over Adjacent side.

    - Ice Grows Ever Colder: the way to remember the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. (Jupiter has a total of 63 moons, but the Galilean satellites are the largest, and the first ones discovered by Galileo with the help of his telescope.) Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.
    posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 5:10 PM on October 19, 2007

    I remember SOHCAHTOA as

    Some old Horse
    Caught a Horse
    taking oats away.
    posted by drezdn at 5:55 PM on October 19, 2007

    Earth History/Geologic Time

    Come Over Some Day Maybe Play Poker Three Jacks Call Two Queens

    Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian Mississippian Pennsylvanian Permian Triassic Jurassic Cretaceous Tertiary Quaternary
    posted by lost_cause at 7:07 PM on October 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Memorising things can be fun - I know I memorised the post-1066 monarchs of England/Britain (after 1707) for just that reason. But it's not history.

    /putting history teacher's hat on

    If you are really concerned about knowing and understanding history, you should remember the stories. I won't say that names and dates don't matter, because sometimes they do, but it's not the names and dates per se - it's the characters and the chronology that matters. Does it matter that you know the date Elizabeth I died? Or exactly how the Tudor family tree worked to bring James VI of Scotland to the throne of England as James I? No, and in fact I couldn't tell you the dates or names without looking them up (and I teach Tudor-Stuart history). What is important to remember that the death of the unmarried and childless queen brought her cousin to the throne, uniting the thrones of England and Scotland in one person and laying the groundwork not only for the Civil War, but eventually for the union of England and Scotland in the early eighteenth century. (1707 - 300 years ago this year.)

    I've studied very little modern history (post 1800) officially, but I tend to remember it like this. I often forget the name of the Iranian prime minister who was ousted by the Shah with CIA backing in 1953ish, but at least I remember the coup and some of its reasons (and thus have a bit more understanding of what was happening in the Islamic revolution of 1978). Or knowing the story of the Lusitania - that reminds me about how the US were isolationist for much of WWI, but then joined in the last year(s).

    So basically what I'm suggesting is that you learn history through stories - read well-written books, watch documentaries. Even historical novels (though do check them against non-fiction, as many are quite questionable, either because of controversy, or because the history has simply been rewritten to reflect modern issues - the Titanic, for instance, has been rewritten several times, and the original history obscured). But names and dates are for encyclopedias - I use wikipedia (I wouldn't trust it further, but it is good on the names and dates).

    (And stories can help you memorise the names and dates - I personally remember my kings by remembering personal things about them - how they died, colour of their hair, whether they were short lived or long-lived - contrast Richard II and Edward III, for example. Both came to the English throne as boys in the 1300s, but one died young and childless, the other lived for a long time and had so many children he started the Wars of the Roses.)
    posted by jb at 4:11 AM on October 24, 2007

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