Q From W D Lawrence: In the prayers-for-the-people section of our Episcopal service, the priest will include someone who has died and will mention, for example, ‘John Doe, whose year’s mind falls on this day’. I asked him the derivation of that phrase and he didn’t know. Any ideas?
A I’m not surprised your pastor didn’t know the derivation. It’s a phrase that went out of popular use several centuries ago and survives only in this very special ritual situation.
The first thing to realise is that mind here is a reference to remembrance or commemoration. It’s a relative of phrases like time out of mind (time immemorial), or the old English proverb out of sight, out of mind, or when you say “that puts me in mind of ...” or in the idiom to call to mind (which gives the clue why mind should be equated with memory).
A mind was once an act of memory or recollection, though it became obsolete in this sense about five centuries ago (a related sense survives in Scots and in some English dialects). It survives in this ecclesiastical phrase to refer to an act of commemoration of a departed soul, in year’s mind for a requiem sung on the anniversary of his or her funeral, or perhaps a mention in prayers. There was not only a year’s mind but also twelvemonth’s mind and month’s mind.
However, this last phrase could also have the sense of an earnest desire or longing, though presumably one of short duration, a usage that turns up in Shakespeare and many other places, though it went out of use in standard English in the nineteenth century. For example, in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771), “The humour seems to be infectious; for Clinker, alias Loyd, has a month’s mind to play the fool, in the same fashion, with Mrs Winifred Jenkins”.