The lists section showed how to remember lists by making a vivid mental picture. This works very well for lists of everyday objects, but what if items in the list aren’t easily pictured? Take the following list:

  1. Hawthorne
  2. Josquin
  3. 271940338
  4. cancrine
  5. Rachmaninoff
  6. Duchovny
  7. sandia
  8. Tchaikovsky
  9. 4839674
  10. Anderson

Names, numbers, and words from other languages are practically impossible to picture and are difficult to remember. This section will discuss how to substitute meaningful pictures in the place of unfamiliar words and names. (There is another page that explains how to remember numbers).

The technique

The simple trick to memorize names and unfamiliar words is to substitute familiar words that can be visualized in the place of words that can’t be pictured. You have most likely used this idea before, but this section shows several different strategies for substitution depending on the type of information.

Phonetic substitution

One way to find a substitution for an unfamiliar word is to use a word or phrase that sounds similar, but that can also be visualized. This technique works well for names or words that are completely unfamiliar. As silly as the examples below seem, this method really does help to memorize unfamiliar words very fast and remember them for a long time.

Learning words in other languages

When learning a new language, for example, the words do not immediately have any meaning for the learner. To memorize vocabulary it is necessary to link the word to its meaning. Most of the time, it is easy to find an English word or phrase that sounds like the word. The following are some examples of Spanish words and what they sound like in English.

spanish word meaning sounds like
sandia watermelon sandy
ropa clothes rope
grabador recorder grab a door
silla chair see ya’
onda wave honda

Of course, these might not be the only English words or phrases that sound like the Spanish words, and you could use whatever comes to mind.

Now instead of trying to link the Spanish word to its meaning, link the meaning to what’s in the “sounds like” column. To memorize that sandia means watermelon, imagine dropping a piece of watermelon and getting it covered with sand; imagine eating that watermelon and the grittiness of the sand on your teeth.

There isn’t any reason why this technique has to be used with other languages; it can be used to memorize English words as well as scientific terms and other jargon.

Memorizing names

Phonetic substitution also gives a way to visualize and memorize names. Many names can be visualized without any work, such as Marshall, King, or Wolfe. But most other names can be visualized using phonetic substitution. Some examples are Clark (clerk), Harvey (RV), and Gomez (combs).

This can be used to easily memorize names and to link them to other information.

Partial substitution

Phonetic substitution works well for words that are unfamiliar, but for words and names that are more familiar there is an easier technique. A student in a music history class, for example, would be very familiar with the names of classical composers, but would still have to memorize information about them. In this situation, only a part of the name is needed to recall the name of a composer.

Name Partially sounds like
Beethoven oven
Mozart art
Rachmaninoff rock
Handel (door) handle
Tchaikovsky ski or key
Back book
Schubert Bert (of Bert and Ernie)
Schumann shoe or man
Debussy sea
Haydn hide (of an animal)

This technique works well because all of these names are in a well defined category. “Man” cannot stand for the last name Mansfield because that isn’t the name of an important composer.

When memorizing familiar words or names in a certain category, partial substitution is faster and easier than complete phonetic substitution. There is another option, however…

Symbolic substitution

This last substitution technique is very easy, and is another way to memorize familiar words or names. When memorizing a word that cannot be visualized, use an object that can be visualized that is already strongly associated with the original word. For an example, we’ll use the stereotypes that most people have about the different States in the USA.

State Symbol
Washington apples
Florida space shuttle, (bad: Disney World, oranges)
California Golden Gate bride, In-n-out, (bad: Disneyland, oranges)
New York Statue of Liberty
Wisconsin cheese
Texas cowboy
Maine lobster

As you can see, Disney and oranges might be used for Florida or California, so it’s best to avoid something like Mickey Mouse or an orange as a symbol for either of those States.

Partial substitution and symbolic substitution work best when you are memorizing facts about a limited set of items.

Just like partial substitution, this technique works well because all of these words are in a well defined category. This technique could also be used for a set of people, or for countries (the Eiffel Tower for France, sushi or a samurai for Japan, …).

What’s next?

Now that you know how to turn any word or name into a mental image, the numbers section can help you to remember numbers of any length by turning them into visualized words.