It started with swine flu, sort of. I was reading about symptoms when an old saying came to mind: "Feed a cold and starve a fever."

It started with swine flu, sort of. I was reading about symptoms when an old saying came to mind: "Feed a cold and starve a fever."

Or is it "Starve a cold and feed a fever"?

I can never for the life of me remember, and if a quick look at a few Google sites is any indication, no one else can, either. This is a good reason to throw out the phrase altogether, don't you think? The world has enough confusing information as it is.

Much of that information has itself been shortened or simplified or tricked out for easy memorization by way of mnemonics. As if mnemonics ever helped me. For one thing, when I learned them as a child, I tended to be distracted by a mnemonic's back-story.

Take, for instance, the sentence intended to help music students remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef: E, G, B, D, F: Every Good Boy Does Fine.

What boy? was the question I asked as a 7-year-old. I'm sure I assumed we were talking about Gallant, the Highlights for Children character who minded his mother, picked up after himself and was craveningly obedient in every way. His alter ego, Goofus, on the other hand, ignored his mother, flung his things around and scowled constantly. Certainly he wasn't the good boy who did fine.

This sort of speculation was no doubt the reason I gained an early reputation for daydreaming. Well, that and the fact that I spent a lot of time in the bathroom, sitting in our deep, old-fashioned (and empty) bathtub with my legs dangling over the curved edge and my chin tucked into my chest, reading.

And then there's the other phrase, the one for the lines in the bass clef: Good Boys Do Fine Always. Are you kidding? Did the music teachers have to come up with a sentence almost exactly like the one we memorized for the treble clef? How about Great Big Ducks Fly Away? Or Gosh Bill Drops Flies Arrogantly? Anything but Good Boys Do Fine Always, or Fine Boys Always Do Good, or whatever it is.

Now take the planets, or rather, the mnemonic used to remember their order: My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets.

That one's fine if a person can remember that Mercury is the one closest to the Sun, but if you're a person who can never recall which is Bert and which is Ernie, you might stumble right out of the gate.

Anyway, that planet sentence hasn't been valid since Pluto was drummed out of the planet corps. As others have said, the mnemonic has now become My Very Easy Method Just Seems Useless Now. And even that one won't help if you insist on remembering it as My Very Useless Method Now Seems Just Easy.

And finally, consider the cranial nerves. Medical students apparently learn those 12 nerves by memorizing the sentence On Old Olympus' Towering Tops a Finn and German Viewed Some Hops. That's a good one, although any fool can see that keeping those first three O's straight is not made any easier by learning that sentence. And then, there's the danger of picking up one's pencil in the examination room and thinking "A Finn and German On Towering Tops Viewed Some Old Olympus Hops." Why not? It makes almost as much sense. Of course, even if I learned it the right way, I'd have had too many questions to ignore: Who were these people? Were they friends? Were they traveling together, or had they met on the train? If I possessed the kind of mind that stayed on task and quietly learned the facts set before it (Olfactory 1, Optic ll, Oculomotor lll) I might be a surgeon today.

Instead, I can't remember what comes after "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November " and the world of medicine is better off because of it.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer: E-mail her at