Of Olive And Her Ankles

This will not be a long post, being simply a response to a ridiculous prompt: mnemonic.

It will not be a long post because although at school – when mnemonics are most useful – I was quite good at thinking up mnemonics, I was not at all good at remembering what they stood for. I was interested in the mnemonic for its own sake, not the boring thing that originally necessitated it, and I had a tendency to forget boring things.

The one everyone recalls from school, I suppose, is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – EGBDF. This is something to do with Music – maybe the notes on a piano? There is also FACE. I never had the faintest interest in learning to read music, so I instantly forgot what they stood for and was persecuted by Miss Spokes the music teacher for ever after. Miss Spokes was going thin on top, and her false teeth occasionally fell out on the piano whilst she was playing. She had a voice like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street (on a bad day) all cracked and hideous. She told me I was a soprano, and forced me to sing – or rather mime – the soprano part in every single song we ever sang, even though I was, and knew I was, and have for ever after continued to be, an alto of severely limited range.

At school I was even less interested in Maths than I was in Music. This was partly my mother’s fault. Just before I started infant school, aged 4.5 or possibly 5, she foolishly told me she had never been any good at Maths at school and didn’t expect I would be either. Instant fear. Instant failure. They sat me on the ‘bottom table’ for Maths and the top table for English, and in these locations I remained, either metaphorically or actually, for the rest of my school career.

In my thirties, however, I decided I needed to teach myself Maths and get a Maths ‘O’ level. I bought that year’s text book in Smiths – a great, fat thing it was – and taught myself. I did it mostly by working backwards from the answers. One of the Engineers at work taught me some basic algebra. So – this is where the mnemonic comes in – for the exam I had to memorise the rules for calculating sines, cosines and tangents.

In those days, by the way, there were no calculators. You had a skinny, dog-eared set of tables full of tiny, tiny numbers and you had to look them up, and since I have the kind of eyes that cannot follow a row all the way along, but will skip up and down at random  I would have to put a coloured ruler underneath the row and follow it along that way.

I recall that sines, cosines and tangents are something to do with right-angled triangles but have no idea now – and I suspect had no idea when I passed my Maths O Level with flying colours – what possible use one might make of them once one had calculated them. I invented a mnemonic to remember them, which was:

Olive Has Always Had Orange Ankles
Opposite over Hypotenuse, Adjacent over Hypotenuse, Opposite over Adjacent

Olive, by the way, was the receptionist at the Power Station where I worked (hence the availability of Engineers to help with the algebra). Olive was harshly made-up, sour faced and completely lacking in a sense of humour. She once crashed her car on the way to work, I remember, by ‘just looking down on the floor for her handbag for a moment’. She did not like me.

Poor Olive: presumably she’s dead by now. And what a way to be immortalised – in a mnemonic invented by someone you didn’t much like, for something nobody much understands or ever wanted to much understand in the first place.

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