Losing My Mind
I was watching BBC television the other day, and I was struck by how versatile that little word “mind” is. The lady called out to her son, “mind how you go!” and I realized that Americans don’t use that expression to tell someone to be careful. Then I started thinking that the word was a chameleon, like the word “like” that I discussed a few blogs ago to great popular acclaim (over 1200 hits in the first three days, more than 4600 to date).
Let’s have a little look at the word “mind.” There are two basic forms: one that is a noun and has to do with paying attention or memory, and the other that is a verb (both transitive and intransitive) and has to do with paying attention or memory. Hmm. That doesn’t sound very distinguishing. I’d better trot out the dictionary and some examples.
- Recollection: keep it in mind.
- The active mental activity of an organism: wrap your mind around it.
- Intention or desire: change your mind.
- The healthy condition of mental facilities: your mind is sharp today.
- Opinion: of a like mind
- Disposition or mood: quick mind.
- A person or group embodiment of opinion: public mind
- (Obscure) From Christian Science: God
- (Obscure) A conscious substratum or factor in the universe: (um, sorry. I can’t think of an example here.)
- Remind (chiefly dialectical): Mind him to bring a sweater.
- Remember (chiefly dialectical): Mind the good old days.
- Attend closely: mind how you go.
- To make aware of or notice: I wasn’t sorry, mind you.
- To give heed attentively in order to obey: if you’re firm, the dog will mind you.
- To be concerned about: I don’t mind the rain.
- To be careful: mind you don’t trip on the stairs.
- To give protective care to: mind the dog while I’m out, will you?
- To be attentive or wary: mind the rickety step.
- To become concerned: mind the stormy clouds and bring an umbrella.
- To pay obedient attention: a good dog will mind the master’s commands.
I don’t know about you, but these seem like variations on fewer themes than the dictionary would have us count. To me, there seem to be just four “buckets” of definition:
- The brain and its functioning (in my mind, I’m a genius)
- Paying attention (mind the stairs)
- Obeying (mind your mother)
- Calling attention (it wasn’t difficult, mind you)
I’m not including the obscure or dialectical options, because I’ve simply never heard or read them, so I don’t think they’re common. If you like, you can make a fifth bucket and toss in those lesser known options.
Twenty years ago, I tutored three Chinese ladies in the complexities of American English. All of them had a pretty good grasp of the basics, but when it came to synonyms and homonyms, they really struggled. I remember spending a whole hour with them and the dictionary looking at the word “mine.” They had watched a news program about land mines, listened to their husbands talking about data mining, saw a magazine article for a new sort of business that was a gold mine, and heard their children each insist that some toy was mine. How on earth, they wanted to know, did a listener discern which meaning was which?
First, you have to firmly clasp all these variants to your bosom, ready to dispense them at a moment’s notice. As a native English speaker, this isn’t too hard, as by the time we’re adults, most of us have heard (or used) quite a few such words. It’s simply a matter of screening for suitable meaning. But what if your personal catalog of homonyms consists solely of the two I’ve covered in my blog thus far (like and mind)?
If that’s the case, you’re in trouble. English is full of words that sound or look the same and have different meanings. It’s probably because English is an amalgam of so many other languages (German, French, and Latin at the forefront) and they’ve been blended mercilessly. The only thing I can tell you is to keep your dictionary handy and read all the definitions for every word you look up.
I wondered if there’s a list of homonyms (words that look and sound the same) somewhere. A list of commonly used homonyms would make a useful tool, like a thesaurus, for writers and non-native English speakers. I found a few useful sites online, although there were more homophones listed than homonyms. Homophones sound the same but aren’t spelled the same (ade, aide, aid, there, they’re, their), homographs are spelled the same but aren’t necessarily pronounced the same (getting your just desert, Sahara desert, Polish nation, polish the furniture), and homonyms sound and look the same (such as mean, mine, mind, and like). Here’s what I found in a Google search on “homonym:”
Alan Cooper’s Homonym List: A collection of words that sound the same (homophones), but don’t necessarily look the same (heterographs) with brief definitions. http://www.cooper.com/alan/homonym_list.html
Commonly Misused Words and Phrases: A collection of homophones and homographs with brief definitions. http://wsuonline.weber.edu/wrh/words.htm
Taupecat Consulting: A list of homophones without definitions. http://www.taupecat.com/personal/homophones/
The rest of the Google results seem to be quizzes for students and teachers, which are useful—maybe even more useful than a bald list because they provide context—and definitions in dictionary and encyclopedia listings.
You can find these blogs, a little information about my editorial services and me, and a collection of pages about my “real” life on my Web site, www.MelanieSpiller.com.