On the train coming home from work yesterday, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Wordgasm game for adults builds vocabulary skills.” It was about a woman who created a dvd series called Wordgasm, using racy poems, saucy songs and sex to help adults build verbal prowess.

When asked why the conjunction of sex with vocabulary learning, she replied:

When I was practicing law, I taught standardized test prep to make extra money. I started doing a ton of tutoring, and with vocabulary it’s really important to get people to pay attention—it’s a big part of memory. So by adding the sex and making it racy, it makes the program way more effective. I could test people on the words, and after listening just once, they’ll know them.

This article immediately called two things to mind. First was the episode of the Simpsons where Marge leaves Homer for a college professor, and the deeply depressed Homer forms a grunge band he calls Sadgasm. Kurt Cobain’s cousin calls him, puts the phone up so he can hear the band, and the grunge sound is born.

The second thing I thought of was something from my BYU past. When I took psychology we were given extra credit if we would volunteer to be subjects in various research projects that were going on. So I volunteered.

It turned out to be a project for testing memory retention. They would do things such as give you long lists of words, then distract your brain with something else for a while, and then test your recall of the list of words, that sort of thing. I think there were about a half-dozen drills they ran you through.

As I sat in my little booth taking the test, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to remember all of these things in the right order unless I came up with some sort of mnemonic device to assist my poor little brain. So I decided to use profane words as mnemonics to help me. (Think of George Carlin’s infamous seven words you can’t say on television routine.) I reasoned that I would be more likely to remember those kinds of words than everyday, ordinary ones.

I did well on the drills and was pleased with my performance.

Then a couple of grad students wanted to interview me to inquire in detail as to how I managed to memorize the material. Oops! I just thought I had to take the tests, I didn’t realize I was going to have to explain how I managed it afterwards. So I had a crisis of scientific ethics. Part of me wanted to lie about the reality of it. But I had been a science geek growing up, and most of me realized I didn’t want to compromise the study by lying about my methodology.

So I took a deep breath and spilled my profanity-laced mnemonics. This was very embarrassing to do in the BYU context.

One of the grad students looked at the other. There was this pause, as they seemed to struggle to absorb the information I had given them. Then slowly smiles crept onto their lips. And the smiles soon turned into laughter. And when they started laughing, I joined right in.

They were good sports about it. But they threw out my test results. They weren’t about to include my methodology in their BYU-sponsored research!


  1. Kevin: If you’d been my trainer I could have taken advantage of this when I was a new missionary trying to memorize the discussions.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Grant #1, whew, you freaked me out for a minute there, as my son is named Grant, too, and I thought he had popped by to see what trouble his old man had gotten into back in the day.

    Yeah, it works really well. I think Margaret should recommend this method to the powers that be at the MTC. Oh, but wait, I don’t think they actually memorize discussions anymore.

  3. I had an economic professor who would start talking about sex about 45 minutes into each 90 minute class. Instead of factories making “widgets”, they would build “effleurages”, which he claimed were Italian sexual devices. He’d stand on desks, jump from chair to chair, and make the Lambda Delta Sigma girls blush. Very effective teacher. He’d give a national standardized exam as his final, and he rarely if ever placed lower than 98th percentile with his students as a whole.

    But, this is yet another reason to distrust the education at BYU – they toss out anything that could be regarded as “not in harmony with BYU priciples”.

  4. The possibilities are nearly endless. In beginning orchestra, Mr. Hilgendorff taught us the notes on the treble clef with “Every Good Boy Does Fine” (which I remember 40 years on.

    But, using the Barney Corollary, I can quickly come up with several unprintable alternatives.

  5. This is all so funny. Thanks for the laugh.

    This post made me laugh extra because it made me think of the psychology course I took while at BYU. I kid you not, the professor talked about sex in every class. It became a running joke; we students would sit back, waiting, waiting, for the part of the professor’s lecture where she would start into a discussion of human sexuality. But, hey! It worked – I’ll never forget that class!

  6. Funny post, but isn’t it a little creepy that these students are throwing out results willy-nilly because it might make someone uncomfortable? I’d hate to accidentally hire them to do some research for me.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    jjohnsen, I had that thought as well.

  8. Oh, it’s just like judging gymnastics or diving–you throw out the highest and lowest scores.

    On the other hand, as my father, a chemist, was wont to say, the samples in social science “research” are so laughably small that it doesn’t matter anyway. By contrast, in a chemical reaction you’ve got 6.023 x 10e23 of whatever you’re observing, and not one of them is having a bad day.

  9. Matt Rasmussen says:

    Phew! When you mentioned you volunteered for a psychology research project, I thought for sure it was the one where a suspicious male calls you at home and tells you to lay down on your bed to relax…

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Very good, Matt!

  11. John Hamer says:

    Kevin, your reference confused me because it is apparently drawn from an episode of the so-called 19th season of The Simpsons. This series officially jumped the shark on November 8, 1998, with the episode “When You Dish Upon a Star,” which guest starred Alec Baldwin, Kim Bassinger, and Ron Howard.

    If you want to memorize stuff, cut the potty mouth and go for rhymes :) !

    Remember the classics:

    In 1215 at Runnymede, do-da, do-da,
    The nobles and the king agreed, oh-da-doo-da-day.
    (On the closing day,
    The escrow agents pay
    Taxes, liens and interest, too
    Thanks to Fanny Mae.)

    And, even better, don’t forget:
    If a fire starts to burn,
    There’s a lesson you must learn
    then you’ll see
    you’ll avoid catastrophe!

  12. Kevin, I think you might appreciate the alternative versions of songs I whisper to my wife so the kids don’t hear – and sometimes hymns and primary songs whispered so those sitting in the pew behind us don’t hear. My oldest son says there’s a special level of Hell reserved for those of us who do that, but it certainly makes the original songs memorable.

  13. Those prank callers pretending to be psych majors doing research should learn some English grammar and tell people to lie down on their beds and relax.

    It’s the old Shibboleth test: if the guy blows the grammar, you know he’s some uneducated pervert.

  14. This post cracked me up, Kevin. I’m going to have to remember this in case I ever end up participating in a BYU memory study. ;)

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