Thursday, April 05, 2007

minding

After the recent discussion of signs you wouldn't see in America, Amy in San Francisco e-mailed to say:
I recently obtained a few stick-on signs when last in the UK that I prize (for our hazard-ridden basement): "Mind the step" and "Mind your head." It occasioned some talk around here---the very same UK company (Seton.co.uk) through their US branch only sells "Watch your step" and "Watch Your Head" signs. My [British] husband said he always found it somewhat nonsensical to tell someone to watch their own head. I like the signs because they remind me pleasurably of being in UK pubs full of uneven floors and low ancient beams.
Of course, the most famous British warning signs/announcements are in the London Underground (= AmE subway--but note that BrE subway usually means 'pedestrian underpass' (orig. AmE)) and other (BrE) railway stations (=AmE train stations): MIND THE GAP, or sometimes more explicitly: MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM EDGE. Click here to hear one version of that announcement, by voice artiste Emma Clarke. One hears different versions of the announcement on different lines. (Incidentally, one hears artiste much more in BrE than in AmE.) You can read more about minding the gap on Annie Mole's guide to Underground Etiquette, from which the photo at the right comes. See also her fantastic London Underground blog.

Amy's husband's observation, that you can't watch your own head, struck me as fairly sensible, but, of course, American English happily allows us to watch with senses other than sight. For instance if you're told to watch your mouth (i.e. don't be impudent), you don't run for a mirror. This sense of watch, meaning 'take care to pay attention to' is also present in BrE, but it is more common in such contexts in AmE. A BrE equivalent of watch your mouth is mind your language. (This was also the title of a British sitcom in the 1970s, which was, by most accounts, fairly horrid. Better Half has just read this and accused me of wild understatement. He says it was "excrement in visual form". Which brings us back to overstatement.)

Now, mind has many obsolete, obscure and dialectal (especially Scottish and Caribbean) senses that I won't go into here, but for me one of its most salient meanings is 'be obedient to'. That sense is listed in the OED as "Now regional (chiefly N. Amer. and Irish English)". So, one must mind one's parents and mind the teacher. Since Americans often hear imperative mind in this sense, hearing mind the gap or mind your head can sound to us like we're meant to obey the gap or head, rather than to (orig. AmE) watch out for it.

The prominence of the 'obey' sense of mind in AmE also makes BrE child-minder (kind of like [orig. AmE] babysitter, but more usually used to refer to refer to semi-formal day care arrangements) sound ambiguous, as it could mean 'one who obeys a child' as well as 'one who takes care of a child'. Of course, if we want our words to be 'sensible', then babysitter deserves to be mocked, since one needn't sit when one (AmE) babysits. (Note that the sitting here is sitting with the baby, not on the baby.) But, then again, life would be a lot less interesting if languages were 'sensible' all the time.

Both dialects use mind to mean something like 'to be bothered about' in contexts like Do you mind if I smoke? But, as we've seen before, BrE and AmE use never mind in different kinds of contexts and for different kinds of purposes.

[Finally found the problem with comments on this post and have corrected it. For those with an RSS feed, I apologi{s/z}e if this meant that you got this post a half dozen times while I tried and tried again!]

17 comments:

DesiLinguist said...

While growing up in India in the 90s, I was subjected to a Hindi version of 'Mind Your Language', called 'Zabaan Sambhalke' (Mind Your Tongue). Horrid is such an understatement.

Ken Broadhurst said...

"Mind your manners" is the expression I think of first, as an American.

Canadian said...

How about "mind your P's and Q's".

dearieme said...

I mind, when I was young, that people'd say "Mind yourself, son" and, if I failed to, they'd say "Never mind". Mind you, that's trusting my memory, not the most reliable part of my mind.

Chris said...

Re: signs you'd never see in the US

When I was over there last March, I took a picture of a delightful, bright-colored sign that said "No fly tipping." It's now the last photo in my slide show of that trip. I'm reasonably sure the US version would be "No dumping," but I have yet to find another American who reacts with anything other than "Huh?"

Pete Moor said...

Last time I went back to Blighty, in 1988, I saw a road sign which (AmE that) said "When red light shows, please halt". (Or should that be 'halt."'? [Think Victor Borge *g*]) I imagine the US equivalent would be "STOP ON RED!"

Time was when it was assumed the Brits would always be more courteous, while their left-pond cousins would be more gruff. I wonder if that is still so, and whether it really matters. Should the road sign be courteous, or should it be efficient?

Excessive courtesy could lead to accidents while people absorb the road signs. But then, there are too many moving signs in the US, and you can come a cropper trying to read them before you pass them by.

My first experience of US curtness was in 1967 at a Market Diner on 12th and 39th in NY, when a docker said "Gimme a Schlitz". Not too many years later, I was equally annoyed by UK politesse when I heard again the likes of "Do you think I might possibly have one of those...", and I wanted to yell "For chrissakes just say what the hell you want and have done with it!"

IAE, I was thinking of the crowded tube situation. In my UK days, (1950s and 60s), if one person stepped on another's foot, it was common for both parties to immediately exclaim SORRY! From this thread I gather that such a reaction can no longer be counted upon.

zhoen said...

"Baby-minder" sounds (perhaps appropriately) funny, since mind is more usually used as 'be bothered by.'

'Do you mind?' is not most commonly 'do you obey', nor 'do you pay attention', but 'do you object?' Which may be why "mind your language" can be humorously interpreted as 'be annoyed by your language.' As an imperative, not a question, possibly.

Or,

"Mind your step."

"Naw, I don't mind."

In Boston, anti loitering (I assume) signs read, "Police Take Notice." Not actually sure precisely what they mean.

Cameron said...

My favourite US roadsign says simply "WRONG WAY!!!" only without the exclamaton BrE marks/AmE points. I remember seeing one of those as a photo in a humnorous diary column in the Herald here, and laughhing quite immoderately. But in context (where you could conceivably exit the AmE freeway/BrE motorway via an entrance ramp) it is perfectly sensible and pretty well impossible to misinterpret.

Cameron said...

By the way, my Texan wife has a tendency to say "do you care?" when she means what I would express as "do you mind?" Is that unique to her, is it a USism, or a Texasism, or even a localism?

lynneguist said...

There are a lot of minds that I didn't touch on in the post, mostly because they are shared between the two dialects that concern me here.

Cameron, I wouldn't say do you care instead of do you mind, but I can't speak for all of America (and didn't live in Texas long enough to internali{s/z}e the dialect (even then, it might not have been the same one that your wife speaks).

flashgordonnz said...

Thank you for the link to Emma Clarke's website. I don't suppose that anyone can direct me, please, if it's not too much trouble, to a recording of "mind the Gap" as broadcast at Bank Station? I haven't lived in Londres since 2004, so I am only assuming it hasn't changed since then. I just loved the authoritative tone of the chap whose voice made the announcement.

Anonymous said...

'Mind Your Language'... creeping horror, I would suggest; gape-mouthed, cringing fascination that anything could be so bad. I can't remember anything linguistic from it, so I have to assume it had no linguistic content.

Ginger Yellow said...

They recently brought out a DVD of Mind Your Language. When I first saw it on a shop shelf I just stopped and gawped for about a minute. I couldn't believe anyone thought it would still sell these days, let alone that anyone thought it was appropriate to release.

Stephen Jones said...

"Mind your language" was great fun! They did a rerun on BBC Prime a year back. Hilarious despite being corny.

Paul Danon said...

I suppose a baby-minder relates to mind in the sense of would you mind (look after) my bike while I went into the shop? Babies don't just have minders but, when adults have them, they're less about changing nappies/diapers than being bodyguards. The eponymous TV series was about a London underworld entrepreneur and his bodyguard. Part of the joke was that Arthur Daley, the spiv, needed as much protection from the authorities as from his criminal enemies.

Joel A. Shaver said...

As this blog becomes more and more famous, you'll have to get used to receiving delayed comments!

On April 6, not long after you posted this, actually, the BBC website had an article called 'Gun-minding offence introduced,' with an abstract beginning 'Minding a gun becomes an offence...' As an American (Americans don't really mind guns, right?), I couldn't make any sense of the headline or the abstract and I had to get a fair way into the article before I could figure out what it meant.

Since the original posting, however, the BBC have (AmE 'has') amended both the headline and the abstract, putting 'gun-minding' in quotes, and using the more explicit phrase 'Getting someone to hide a weapon from the police' to replace the phrase in the abstract.

Anonymous said...

Caribbean usage of mind also includes, raising or taking care of something. E.g to mind a children, or mind a chicken.