The shocking truth: ใจ doesn’t mean “heart”!
The word ใจ (“jai”) is commonly misunderstood. People say that ใจ means “heart.” That is simplistic and incorrect. If anything, ใจ really means “mind.”
Admittedly, few words in any language always “mean something.” Context influences meaning. Consider รถ, which means “car,” right? Not exactly. รถ means “car” sometimes. Generally, รถ means “vehicle,” which is obvious when you consider these words: รถเข็น รถม้า รถตู้ รถถัง รถพ่วง รถไฟ (in English: cart, carriage, van, tank, semi, and train).
One way to think about it is that the word รถ means “car,” but the prefix รถ means “vehicle.” ใจ is no different, but I want to correct the ใจ/heart misunderstanding for two reasons:
- It’s wrong.
- It contributes to the bad myth that Thai is a primitive language or that Thai people are juvenile.
Let’s approach this objectively: count ใจ-words and see what the data reveals. In the tables below, the first column is the Thai word; the second column is the basic English translation; and the third column makes the case for the word if it is unclear, either by noting the literal translation or by citing similar English expressions.
The Case For “Mind”
All these ใจ-words relate to the concept of the mind, thought, or consciousness.
|เข้าใจ||Understand||Literally, “enter mind”|
|รู้ใจ||Intimate||To know one’s mind|
|ตั้งใจ||Intend||Literally, “put mind”; “Set one’s mind [to something]”|
|ตัดสินใจ||Decide||“Make up your mind”|
|เกรงใจ||To mind someone||To be considerate|
|พอใจ||Satisfied||To get what you have in mind|
|ใจร้อน||Hot-headed, eager||Literally, “hot mind”|
|ใจเย็น||Cool-headed, level-headed||Literally “cool mind.” (Not “cold-hearted”)|
|เปลี่ยนใจ||Change one’s mind||Literally, “change mind”|
|ใจอ่อน||Yielding||Literally, “soft mind”|
The Case for “Heart”
All these ใจ-words clearly relate to the concept of the heart.
|หัวใจ||Heart||The blood-pumping organ|
|ตกใจ||Startled||“My heart skipped a beat”|
|ใจร้าย||Mean||“Heartless” (This is ร้าย, not ไร้; so no literal translation)|
|กำลังใจ||Courage||หมดกำลังใจ means “disheartened”|
Although I categorized it as a heart-word, I take issue with ใจดำ. It means “cruel,” but nobody actually says “black-hearted” in English. We say “cold-hearted.” When you translate “cold-hearted” literally, a Thai speaker will misunderstand you, hearing “level-headed.” Nonetheless, since “black-hearted” is understandable in English, it goes in.
The Case for Neither
These examples do not clearly contribute to the heart/mind debate. Some strike me as a little mind-like, but the correlation is not strong enough.
|ไว้ใจ||Trust||Maybe literally “to leave your mind” with someone with someone?|
|จริงใจ||Sincere||Maybe literally “true heart” but that’s a stretch. I would say “straight shooter.”|
|แน่ใจ||Confident||Maybe literally “sure mind”?|
|ตามใจ||Assent||“To go along [with someone]”|
Also note that some native Thai speakers (even educated ones) assert that their mind feels to them physically embodied in the center of their chests. But this fact contributes to neither the mind nor the heart argument. It only confirms that the concepts of mind and heart overlap for Thai speakers (as they do for English speakers). So this fact, while interesting, is not relevant to this analysis.
It’s pretty clear that most ใจ-words do not evoke the heart meaning, although some do indeed. Many seem connected to the English “mind” concept, directly or indirectly. Therefore, the argument that “ใจ means ‘heart'” is not compelling.
(We did not consider each word’s frequency of use, but the results would likely not change since each type of ใจ-word is in extremely common usage.)
So we have a convincing primary conclusion: That ใจ means “heart” is incorrect—it’s is a misleading oversimplification.
And we have a reasonable secondary conclusion: If there is one word that ใจ does mean, that word is “mind.”