Mon, 08 Nov 1999

Phone mnemonics solve memory problems

By Lim Tri Santosa

BANDUNG (JP): We live in a society full of numbers: savings account numbers, license plate numbers, zip codes and phone numbers to mention but a few. Yet without a special technique, numbers are very difficult to memorize because they are hard to associate with something. Our brains think with pictures, not with numbers. But, what if we could mentally convert a number into a word, a word that represents a mental picture? It turns out that we can.

Phonetic telephone numbers have become more feasible and well known recently. Some companies and businesses have telephone numbers that spell out their names and/or services such as toll- free numbers 0-800 followed by a mnemonic in ads to attract their consumers. We also can use this method to remember our important phone numbers.

Simply put, a mnemonic is something which helps you remember a piece of information. Most people find it easier to remember a catchy phrase than a seven-digit phone number. 937! That is 'yes' in phonespeak. We notice that phone buttons associate most numbers with several letters of the alphabet (2=ABC, 3=DEF and so on). The telephone touch-tone keypad is arranged differently from the calculator keypad. Calculators were arranged from the beginning so that the lowest digits were on the bottom. Telephone keypads put the 1-2-3 on the top row. If the lower numbers were on the bottom, the alphabet would then start on the bottom and be in reversing alphabetical order; of course it would be a confusing setup.

Unfortunately, not every number contains a catchy phrase. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, not all numbers have letters associated with them, i.e. 1 and 0 do not correspond to any letters. Secondly, relatively few of all possible character combinations are actually meaningful words. According to PhoneSpell (, around 3 percent of innocent looking phone numbers do not have any such words in them and an even have a bigger fraction of small words like 'a' or 'of' which do not form memorable mnemonics.

The PhoneSpell service offers a simple interface and some nice functions. It is purposely limited to finding mnemonics based on the proper spelling of ordinary English words. You can enter a full phone number and see what English words and phrases it spells or enter a portion of a phone number and see what words start with those digits. You can type in letters and it will show you the corresponding phone number or a mix of letters and numbers (e.g. 530-BEST); PhoneSpell will leave the number alone as it translates the letters to become 530-2378.

The word list PhoneSpell uses was edited with the goal of being comprehensive enough to be able to generate at least one good mnemonic for nearly all phone numbers while at the same time selective enough to avoid generating mnemonics that use such obscure or confusing words that they really do not help anyone remember the number.

To find more words and phrases using the letters on your telephone keypad, check out the following sites: PhoNETic ( offers a system where you enter a number and the resulting words contained therein are listed separately. Simply click on a useful word and all the possible combinations that include that word are shown on screen. PhoNETic also includes foreign language words in its database (French, German, Spanish and Italian).

DialABC ( provides a very cool grid layout of word combinations, allowing you to quickly piece together the most intriguing phrase for your phone number. DialABC offers you a choice of dictionaries to use for the search (Extended American English, Dutch and German). The dictionary also contains some company and product names. If you use the English dictionary, DialABC will connect the words it finds with their definition in an online Webster's dictionary.

By the way, you can also use the above site to decode secret messages. Send a short message to someone using numbers, such as 456838 = I LOVE U, 26634663 = COME HOME, 454778 = I KISS U, 48463 = HUG ME. It is useful if you want to send a private message to someone's pager via an operator. This technique is very helpful. You will not feel embarrassed every time you send a romantic message to someone you care for.

Remember, bad strings of numbers could be interesting or fancy words. Do not buy the nomor-nomor cantik (a good memorable number) GSM prepaid card, as even a bewildered number could turn your personal mobile phone number into a memorable number such as 081-xxx-56838 (LOVE U), 7399 (SEXY), 5646 (JOHN), 57678 (JPOST). Try it on your home or business phone number; who knows it might be a good catch phrase that could be sold for a high price to a commercial company near you. The choice is up to you.