Mind your head

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For some reason, the expression xiǎoxīn 小心 (lit., "little heart" –> "[be] careful") often throws Chinese translators into a tailspin.

"Crimes against English " (4/25/15)
"Free souvenirs " (8/15/15)
"Sandwiched in an escalator " (2/9/15)
"Signs from Kashgar to Delhi " (10/11/13)

and the classic, standard Chinglish

"Slip carefully " (5/6/14)

Perhaps more so than for any other short warning posted on signs around China, the following elicits an astonishing variety of Chinglish renditions:

xiǎoxīn pèngtóu 小心碰头 ("watch / mind your head")

To help us understand how the translations go awry, let's look at the literal meanings of the characters one by one):

xiǎo 小 ("small; little")

xīn ("heart")

pèng ("bump; touch; meet")

tóu 头 ("head; beginning")

The first two characters joined together as one word, xiǎoxīn 小心, mean "(be) careful".

The following translations have been collected from this Google image search (excluding signs that are too well made and probably for sale as curios, and hence not genuine specimens of Chinglish in action, though most of the commercially available signs do replicate actual Chinglish):

Carefully bang head


Carefully hits to the forehead

MIND YOUR HEAD (this is English, not Chinglish)

Let your head knocked here




Take Care Hit Head (slight variation in the Chinese here, with pèng being replaced by the synonym zhuàng 撞 ["bump; hit"])

Caution, butt head against the wall

Carefulness bump head

Caution Your Head (slight variation in the Chinese here, with xiǎo 小 being replaced by dāng 当 ["take; be; equal; must; ought; to face; just at a time / place; treat [as]; think; regard", and many more meanings)

CAREFULLY MEET (pèng can also mean "encounter, meet")



Please Beware your head



be careful and not torch the head

Be careful,bump head!

Mind Crotch (slight variation in the Chinese here, with xiǎo 小 being replaced by dāng 当 [see above for definitions])

Meet your ceiling

In our next installment of the Chinglish Annals, we will examine another widespread warning having to do with the other extremity of the body.


  1. Mara K said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

    Where did "mind crotch" come from?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    Good question, Mara K. I think it refers to that place where the up escalator and the down escalator cross each other. It is actually a very dangerous spot, and in most countries a piece of thick plastic or other material is hung there to prevent people from getting their head stuck between the two intersecting planes.

    One definition of a "crotch" is "a forked region formed by the junction of two members". Either they were referring to this or to some other place where two planes intersect and post a danger for people who get caught between them or bang their head on the opposite member from the one they are on.

    Incidentally, there have been a number of sensational escalator accidents in China in recent months.

  3. neminem said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

    Clearly the writer of one of those is a fan of marijuana and/or The Toyes: "Hard work good and hard work fine, but first TAKE CARE OF HEAD".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 11:29 pm

    Here you can see plastic panels and other devices, some of them in place, and most of them marked "xiǎoxīn pèngtóu 小心碰头" ("watch / mind your head") designed to keep people from getting their head hit by the opposite escalator from the one they're on, or worse, getting their head stuck between the two escalators.

    I suspect that the angle where the two escalators cross is the "crotch" they had in mind when they wrote "mind (the) crotch".

  5. maidhc said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 2:11 am

    "Careful bump head" makes total sense to me.

    When I was in high school we had this conceit that the subway trains were actually some kind of giant snake that would swallow people. When the doors closed there was an announcement like "Stand clear of the doors", but we would yell out "Watch gums!". At least a few people thought it was funny.

  6. John Swindle said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 6:53 am

    Google Translate says the Chinese term 小心碰头 (xiǎoxīn pèngtóu) means "watch your head" in English and " 注意大会 " in Japanese. It says the latter term is pronounced "Chūi taikai" and means "Note tournament" (presumably "Note: Tournament") in English. I can see part but not all of how they get there.

  7. P'i-kou said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 1:14 pm


    Or might the original have been 裆心 dāng xīn (lit. 'crotch-heart' or even 'crotch-mind'), a conceivable misspelling of the homophonous 当心 'be careful'?

  8. Anna said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    Silly, but somewhat related: when coughing uncontrollably, the Dutch will sometimes tell you to "choke carefully!" (Stik voorzichtig!).

  9. EricF said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    That was exactly my first thought, which also made me think of Jefferson Airplane "White Rabbit"…

    Remember what the dormouse said
    Feed your head, feed your head

  10. Matt_M said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 5:44 am

    I wonder how xiǎoxīn ("little heart") came to mean "careful"? Interestingly enough, the expression "little heart" — น้อยใจ (noy jai) — exists in Thai, too, but in Thai it means something like "to be peeved, feel slighted, be upset".

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 7:08 am

    I've often wondered about that too, Matt_M, and in the days since I wrote the post considered adding a brief note about it, which I shall do now.

    I think this is how it came about.

    It is well known that, in traditional Chinese thought, xīn 心 means both "heart" and "mind". When someone says xiǎoxīn 小心 ("little heart-mind"), they're essentially saying, "let your heart-mind be attentive to little details", i.e., "be careful".

    Does that make sense?

  12. Matt_M said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 8:10 am

    It makes sense, although the phrase still seems quite opaque to me. But then I guess that's often the case with idioms in any language.

  13. JS said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

    I feel like the 'little' of xiaoxin evokes not-boldness / timidness / tentativeness, contrasting with the incautiousness in words like dayi 'careless' or dadalielie 'off-hand, carefree' (with da 'big') or cuxin 'clumsily careless' (with cu 'thick') .

    The Thai word is interesting and seems to have a good match in Ch. xiao-xinyan 小心眼 (lit. little heart-eye[d]) 'petty, needlessly peeved/slighted, etc.).

  14. Chau said,

    August 31, 2015 @ 11:36 am

    @ Mair

    The Indo-European languages can be divided into 2 divisions, the kentum and satem groups. (Yes, this is Language Log, and I know I am carrying coals to Newcastle.) Where one finds words with a k- initial in the kentum group, the cognates in the satem group usually have an s- initial. So, let’s start with L. cautiō meaning ‘caution, heedfulness’. Taking the first syllable cau-, converting k- to s- according to the kentum-satem correspondence, and adding an infix -i- as a glide, you get Taiwanese siáu 小 (literary reading) and sió 小 (vernacular reading). The 心 (Tw. sim) in 小心 can be derived from Classical Greek θυμός (thumós) which means ‘heart, mind’:

    thum- > *thim > sim 心 ‘heart, mind’

    Note: the [θ] sound in Greek and Germanic usually turns into Taiwanese either as a t- or an s-. For example, English thaw finds its correspondents in Tw siau 消 and tháu 透 which then recombine to form siau-tháu 消透 ‘thawed, cleared’.

    Thus, 小心 can be interpreted to mean ‘cautious in mind’.

    Along the theme of ‘Mind something’ there is a commercial by a tech company Kingston Technology touting its thumb drives, which is based on a true story in a London underground station. This commercial was billed as the most touching commercial of 2013, and the whole underground station scene was filmed in a studio in New Taipei city with the station and train cars built from scratch!


    (Problem is their non-British accent.)

  15. julie lee said,

    August 31, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

    @Matt_M , @Victor Mair:

    Yes, Mandarin xiaoxin "(literally) little mind, small mind" means "be careful, be attentive to details" I think of its partner and opposite as dayi 大意 "(literally) big mind, big thinking" meaning "inattentive" "not careful".

    To me, xiaoxin "small mind" suggests a tight mesh, tight thinking, and dayi "big mind" suggest a loose mesh, loose thinking.

  16. flow said,

    September 1, 2015 @ 5:33 am

    i'm not sure the 小 in 小心 refers to the small things that you should pay attention to. Rather, i think it refers to 心 in its meanings 'mind', 'innermost'. Making oneself 'small' inside, one can pass through like the thin thread that passes through the needle's ear; making oneself's mind small means not to entertain wandering thoughts. When we 'concentrate', we put away with the extraneous and reduce ourselves to the essential. The essence of things and the mind is small in quantity.

  17. Eidolon said,

    September 1, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    As far as etymology goes, the phrase 小心 is actually found in early Chinese documents such as the Book of Odes, where it is often combined with 翼翼 to form 小心翼翼, which is usually translated as "anxious and warily." What is not known to many today is that there was also a term, 大心, that was used during the Warring States period, that stood at the other side of 小心, and was used in sentences such as the following from Xunzi, which I think illustrates the semantics nicely. Translations are from http://www.douban.com/group/topic/61339324/:


    "The gentleman and the petty man are opposites. When the gentleman is bold of heart, he [reveres) Heaven and follows its Way. When faint of heart, he is awe-inspired by his sense of moral duty and regulates his conduct to accord with it…"


    "The petty man does not behave in this way. When he is bold of heart, he is indolent and haughty. When faint of heart, he drifts into lechery and is subversive…"

    Thus, from what we can see, in early documents, 小心 and 大心 are roughly opposites. The first describes a person who is faint-hearted/timid/conservative, while the second describes a person who is brave/bold/aggressive. 大心 has ceased to be used in MSM, but 小心 remains similar to its earlier meaning, though it's arguable that it's been merged with 小心翼翼, and so has taken on the semantics of "caution" to a greater degree than "faint of heart."

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    September 1, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

    "Mind your head" is English, but it isn't Scottish English, at least with the meaning intended. Signs saying "Mind your head" are a source of some amusement here, because in Scotland "to mind" means "to remember" so that "Mind your head" means "don't forget to take your head with you".

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