Have a Memory Like a Sieve

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Also: Have a head like a sieve

Meaning of Idiom 'Have a Memory Like a Sieve'

To have a memory like a sieve is to be very forgetful or have a poor memory. 1, 2


"The police had high hopes after finding a witness to the robbery but it turned out he had a memory like a sieve."

After Sean forgot their dinner date, Joan said "Sean is a typical man. He has a memory like a sieve."


The memory has been compared to a sieve since at least the early 1800's. An anonymous but quite well-known poem from the era illustrates:

"What holy lives we all should live,
Might we remember joy and pain,
Alas, that memory like a sieve,
Should hold the chaff and drop the grain!"

Used since the late 1800's, the idiom alludes to the ease at which materials can pass through a sieve. Since a sieve cannot hold very much material, and what it does hold is generally undesired, to have a memory like a sieve is to be unable to retain much useful information.

2. Jarvie, Gordon. Bloomsbury Dictionary of Idioms. London: Bloomsbury, 2009

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