Appendix: Tips on creating mnemonics

Mnemonics to aid memory are personal; they vary from person to person. For instance, if you have a friend whose name happens to sound like a new word you're studying, you can associate the word with the person. If you know a language in which there's a word or phrase that spells or sounds like the new word, even if it has no etymological connection, you may use it as a mnemonic.note1

Nevertheless, English-speaking learners may have a lot of experience in common and a suggested mnemonic for a word may have fairly widespread applicability.

A good mnemonic for a word should not only create a scene or image to establish an association, but also make a phrase or find another word that sounds or spells like the word being studied. Since we assume the reader of this book only knows English, we only search English dictionaries. There are two types of search or two directions to follow: given the meaning, search for a word; given the word, or rather, the spelling, search for a word with the same or similar meaning. The first one relies on a thesaurus, or simply a Google search for synonym theword. That's how I find inspissate ("to thicken"), a word I had not personally learned, as a cognate with espeso ("thick"), to name one example. The second type of search can use the Web sites for words starting with or containing certain letter or letters, as well as the sites that offer words which sound like a given word (e.g. http://soundslike.mapcrow.info/). Alternatively, common English words and many word-like spellings are on each UNIX/Linux server in file /usr/share/dict/words and can be downloaded for local pattern matching. I provide this file on this Web page
http://yong321.freeshell.org/lsw/
which I already converted to Windows format suitable for search with Windows findstr command. The following are some examples of using this native Windows command with so-called regular expressions, i.e., strings that signify a search pattern.

Find all words that begin with cabba:

C:\temp>findstr /r "^cabba" words.txt
cabbage
cabbaged
cabbagehead
...

Case-insensitively find all words that begin with curt:

C:\temp>findstr /i /r "^curt" words.txt
Curt
curt
curtail
...

Find all words that end with cture:

C:\temp>findstr /r "cture$" words.txt
acrocontracture
acture
acupuncture
...

Find all words that contain mas in the middle (or at the beginning) and end with tion (.* means zero or more characters; it doesn't matter what characters they are):

C:\temp>findstr /r "mas.*tion$" words.txt
commassation
demasculinisation
demasculinization
...

Case-insensitively find all words that begin with either e or i, followed by m, by either b or p, by any vowel letter, by r, by any vowel, and by l (square brackets contain characters one and only one of which matches):

C:\temp>findstr /r /i "^[ei]m[bp][aeiou]r[aeiou]l" words.txt
emperil
imparalleled
imperil
...

The above search is an attempt to find a mnemonic for empeņo ("determination"), whose etymology offers no help. First I tried "^[ei]m[bp][aeiou]ny[aeiou]" and "^[ei]m[bp][aeiou]ni[aeiou]", to no avail. Then I realized imperil is a good one. To see if there's anything similar to imperil that could also sound like it, a findstr search is run. If you have installed another tool egrep.exe, you could combine all three searches in one go:

C:\temp>egrep -i "^[ei]m[bp][aeiou](ny|ni|r)[aeiou]l" words.txt
emperil
imparalleled
imperil
...

To retrieve previous commands, press UP key. Then move the keyboard cursor left with the left arrow key. To quickly move, hold Control and press the arrow key. To review your recent commands, press F7. ESC to exit the review.

A common string search variation in creating a mnemonic is to change a consonant to a different one within the same place of articulation; e.g., change b to p, d to t, g to k or c, s to z, vice versa, and v to w. Due to b-v merger in Spanish, try that exchange, too. Alternatively, change a vowel to another vowel or even a diphthong. For example, there's no help from etymology when you try to remember the word barro ("mud", "clay"). It may easily come to your mind that the word sounds like burrow and you quickly make up a mnemonic with it such as "The little creature made a burrow with mud". But if the latter word doesn't come to your mind so naturally, you can systematically search for it: Change b of barro to p, change a to u (which sounds like a in a closed-syllable word), change o to el or ow, change r to l, and make multiple of these changes at the same time. One of the words thus obtained may sound closer to a word you can construct a mnemonic sentence or phrase with.

A mnemonic is not limited to matching a whole word with another whole word in sound or spelling. For instance, dinero can use "dinner roll", viejo "We're old". Since many Spanish words are of Arabic origin, they tend to begin with al- ("the" in Arabic). You can break that off and form the beginning of a sentence, e.g. "Al found a bra on the carpet" as a mnemonic for alfombra. The words in the mnemonic phrase or sentence can even be separated as long as they're not so far apart as to impede mental association. "Broom ninja" can be a perfect mnemonic for bruja ("witch"), if you think of it as a shorthand and you pronounce j like in English.

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[note1] For example, if you know Chinese, "kū le" ("(he/she) is crying") is a perfect mnemonic for cuna ("cradle"), evoking an image of a crying baby in the cradle. Note that this is different from knowing a language that offers cognates, which have etymological connections. If you know a language sharing a large number of cognates with Spanish, such as a Romance language particularly Portuguese, you're at a tremendously great advantage in vocabulary study. You don't even need mnemonics in the first place.

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