Sunday, October 11, 2009

Remembering and Musing: or Conan, the Barbarian

On last Thursday's Talk of the Nation Neal Conan had a conversation with Farhad Manjoo about password security.

There was some good advice on the show. For instance, don't choose <123456> as your password. No really. Don't.

The best passwords are of course also the hardest to remember. Numbers and symbols and primarily unintelligible strings of letters are the way to go. So how to remember such a random string? According to Manjoo you should use a mnemonic device. He uses a pronunciation somewhere between [nəmɑnɪk] and [nʊmɑnɪk]: between a schwa and the vowel in book. Not quite the pronunciation with first syllable rhyming with boo zoo and you (that [u] possibly from the influence of a word like pneumatic).

As I pronounce mnemonic the first vowel falls somewhere between the [i] in beet and the [ɪ] in bit. Manjoo and I pronounce the word almost identically with a slight difference in the front/back place of the first vowel. The sequence of vowels and consonants is the same: CVCVCVC.

Conan also mentioned mnemonic devices. His pronunciation is quite distinct from mine. In fact it's a pronunciation I'd never heard before [mɛmnɑɾɪk] as if the word was spelled <memnotic>.

I thought this might be a simple performance error, not a fixed pronunciation, but he uses the same pronunciation later in the segment. It appears to be his somewhat intentional pronunciation of the word.

There's an obvious effect of the initial <mn> in the spelling of the word. An onset cluster not possible in English. Of course when the [m] is the coda of one syllable and the [n] is an onset of another that's a perfectly acceptable sequence because it's no longer a true cluster. That's one possible fix for a spelling confound on phonology.

But I suspect it's more than just a fix. I wonder if it's not also the result of a couple other influences: memory and hypnotic. Memory is obviously a relevant word probably assumed to be a related form. Hypnotic isn't as direct a connection, but the relevance of psychological terms and 'mindwork' types of tricks and strategies pushes it forward as an influence. Once you've got the initial mem- and you need to put the 'mn' sequence in there and you know the word ends with [ɑCɪk], the [ɑɾɪk] of nearby hypnotic can easily push aside the [ɑnɪk] of already corrupted mnemonic. Perhaps.

I didn't find loads out there. A Google™ search for "memnotic" brings up almost 5000 items as raw hit results, not all of them relevant or even accurate. "Memnotic device" brings up only about a dozen.

It's an interesting blend.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I say nemonic /nɛmɒnɪk/.

    I know several people (including one sister) who say /mɛmɒnɪk/.

  3. it makes sense as a simple fix. just delete the 'n' instead of the 'm'.

    i'm actually really surprised i've never heard that one before. probably because of a tendency towards differentiation of the first two consonants.


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