Just now I called our cat Pushkin a gubbins, and my wife said “That’s a good word, what does it mean?” I said I didn’t know; she asked if I’d made it up, and I said “That, or it’s bubbling up from childhood reading.” Must be the latter, because the first thing Google handed me was the Collins English Dictionary definition:

gubbins [ˈgʌbɪnz]
n Informal
1. an object of little or no value
2. a small device or gadget
3. odds and ends; litter or rubbish
4. a silly person
[C16 (meaning: fragments): from obsolete gobbon, probably related to gobbet]

So it turns out my use of it was perfectly appropriate, even though I had no conscious awareness of the meaning of the word (and still don’t know where I picked it up); the mind is a funny thing. (The OED’s first definition is “Fragments, esp. of fish”; the second is the unusually vehement “A contemptuous name formerly given to the inhabitants of a district near Brent Tor on the edge of Dartmoor, who are said to have been absolute savages. Obs. except Hist.

Are you familiar with this delightful word, and if so, in which senses (and what variety of English do you speak)?


  1. To me it’s “a thing” = “pick up that gubbins over there”, when you can’t remember the right word. Like “gizmo” or like “truc” or “machin” in French. It’s UK/Aust usage for me. Never heard it about a person/animal.

  2. Growing up in England (central, 1960s/70s) I knew this word. I’m sure I haven’t used it since moving to the US. #3 is the sense I know — detritus, usually of an icky nature, such as what you find cleaning a blocked sink drain. I wouldn’t use it of a person or a cat, and certainly not of my cat.

  3. I think it’s a not uncommon word in England. It’s used like “doohickey” for something difficult to name, bits of machinery and such like.

  4. Alan Palmer says

    The main uses I’ve seen of the word have been usage 2 and usage 4. I’ve seen the latter in C19 writing: ‘I was such a silly gubbins for believing him!’
    I can’t recall ever using the word myself, but I’d be inclined to use it in sense 2, if any. I’ve heard of useage 3, but never usage 1 before. I’m from London, England, aged 60.

  5. Yorkshire English – basically the same as ‘stuff’, and used very regularly:
    “Sink plug’s full of gubbins”
    “There was some gubbins about it in the newspaper yesterday”

  6. The word somehow reminds me of Lord of the Rings. If Gollum hadn’t been raving on about a Baggins, I’m sure he would have been talking about a “gubbins”.

  7. Dan Davies Brackett says

    My only experience of the word is in the voiceover snippet that accompanies the arrival of the Big Mek ork boss onto the field of play in the computer game Dawn of War II. he says, “[I’m] here to fix your gubbins!”. All the orks have vaguely northern-English accents, in that game.

  8. I recall my old maths teacher (who also oversaw the school’s computers) referring to the question of whether one could “get into the gubbins” of a printer or such. I don’t know if he ever used it in any ever context, or whether I heard anyone else use it, but I have internalized it as meaning something like “the internal workings of a device”; similar to, but not the same as, senses 2 & 3 above. He was from Northern Ireland, though living in the south of England.

  9. Electric Dragon says

    I (Northern England) agree with Tim May’s teacher. “Gubbins” is used in my family to refer to the internal workings of something, especially something complicated and mechanical – these days I would use it to refer to the deep internals of a computer program (like the OS kernel, or a database’s query analyser), stuff that even a programmer would never usually touch.
    Googling “into the gubbins” (with the quotes) comes up with various results like that.

  10. I know a woman in Merseyside whose maiden name was Gubbins.

  11. My father was from Lancashire and used it mostly for “bits and bobs.” Often.

  12. Google gives 333 (genuine) hits for “internal gubbins”, all seeming to refer to complicated mechanical innards. In my experience (SE England/London) the word is also a synonym for “thingy” or “wossname” in the sense of “object I have forgotten/never knew the exact expression for”

  13. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s a great word.

  14. There is, of course, the “Gubbinal” by Wallace Stevens. I remember looking it up.

  15. So there is; I know the poem but had forgotten its strange name. It even has its own Wikipedia entry.

  16. I’ve definitely heard it here in New Zealand, as a reference to vaguely understood internal workings of a device, but I think mostly from English immigrants. I could be wrong. A lot of English dialect words survive here.

  17. Alexandra says

    I’ve heard it used much the way you did, for the cat – as a diminutive, of sorts, with connotations of silliness.
    As for what English I speak… American. I can’t narrow it down much further than that as I’ve lived all over the US… mainly East Coast / Midwest, though. I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, so probably not often, but I definitely recognized it as I read this article… possibly from my thoroughly Midwestern Grandmother?

  18. dearieme says

    “a small device or gadget” is precisely correct. Background: I speak the acme of Brenglish.

  19. It’s a word I’ve known for as long as I can remember, and which I use quite often — mostly when I need a meaningless fill-in word for something I’m preparing on the computer, but also in conversation to refer to a mess. As it happens I grew up not far from Brent Tor, but I don’t remember it having any particular geographical associations.

  20. Bathrobe: same here! I’m sure this word is in Tolkien.
    Growing up in the West Midlands, 1980’s, “gubbins” was quite commonly used to mean “bits and bobs”, and less often in sense 2. 1 and 4 are new to me.
    Lovely word and just the kind that issues unbidden from one’s subconscious.

  21. I’m sure this word is in Tolkien.
    “Mathom” for white elephant, or maybe Hitchcock’s “maguffin”?

  22. Bathrobe says

    Seems I was wrong about Gollum. From the comments to The First Annual Mr Cockall Innovation Awards Ceremony – Pouring Beans:
    11. Auds:
    Pep is also something to do with financial gubbinses
    12. Ian Mac Mac Mac Mac McIver:
    Gubbinses? You’re not Gollum you know Auds, you can’t go stealing the way characters from fiction translated into film by a clever beardy man from New Zealand speak 😛
    13. Auds
    well how do I know how Gollum speaks. You know I think Lord of the Rings is a big bucket of w**k.
    14. Ian Mac Mac Mac Mac McIver
    That’s true, I did give you the first film on DVD and you still haven’t watched it! You’ve got three hours to kill don’t you? 😛
    15. katie
    LOTR sucks ass. I liked The Hobbit though.
    Harry Potter wees all over Frodo!
    16. Chris
    I think LOTR is a big bucket of wank, and that doesn’t even have any asterisks in it.
    Gubbins is a perfectly reasonable northern word and nothing to do with the boring bollocks portrayed in those films or books.
    So HA. You failed at pep and now you failed at gubbins. HA and HA AGAIN.

  23. j del col says

    I have a very vague recollection of reading an article about Jane Goodall years ago in which she referred to one her children as “Gubbin,” or was it one of the chimps?

  24. “she referred to one her children as “Gubbin,” or was it one of the chimps?”
    Did she ever make any distinction?

  25. SE England born and bred. It’s not a word I use myself, but I certainly recognise it in the senses
    1. thingy I forget the word for, and
    2. stupid person

  26. I’m pretty sure I have heard it in the sense in which Hat used it. It strikes me as the sort of word I might use, or perhaps (re)invent on the spur of the moment, as a jokey term of endearment for a pet or child or a pet.
    But I don’t trust my memory, and I also think that I may have the word mixed up with muggins.

  27. Not only does Tolkien sound right, but before I read the comments, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell nagged at the back of my mind.

  28. Bathrobe, that thread has more interesting stuff further on, about the plural of gubbins:
    19. Ian Mac Mac Mac Mac McIver | January 22nd, 2008 at 17:26
    Ahem, I think you’ll find that whilst ‘gubbins’ is a perfectly acceptable northern word what Auds actually said was ‘gubbinses’, which isn’t northern, and sounds like Gollum said it, so la de da Mr Penwickle and your so-called troop of nuts.
    *thinks he’s made his point, oh yeah*
    20. Auds | January 23rd, 2008 at 12:54
    I think you will find, Mr McIver, if one cares to source one’s dikshunary, that gubbinses is the plurialary of gubbins, ie, multiple gubbs, or from the latin, Gubbo, Gubbas, Gubbat, Gubbamis, Gubbatis, Gubbant. I would be fab on Countdown but I can’t do the numbery stuff.
    21. Ian Mac Mac Mac Mac McIver | January 23rd, 2008 at 17:08
    Blimey. Such an eye opener when it comes to the English language 😛
    22. Auds | January 23rd, 2008 at 22:07
    Benefits of a grammar school education, sunshine.
    26. Chris | January 24th, 2008 at 16:23
    I notice that you’ve taken Gubbins to be a Latin verb, Auds. I find this quite interesting as clearly its usage has changed over time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in modern English use it that way, i.e. “to gubb” or “to gubbin”.
    Of course, Shakespeare was full of it: “I do gubb sir, but I do not gubb at you, sir.”
    In Spanish it is still commonly used as a verb, but has taken on the meaning of the creation of useless blog posts, viz.:
    Gubber (infinitive)
    E.g. “Gubbemos en los Beans, señor”.
    Here ends today’s grammar lesson.
    [end quote]
    I’m pretty sure the stuff about the Spanish is nonsense and probably the Shakespeare too, but what is the plural of “gubbins”?
    [If anyone cares, I’ve never heard it uttered here in the four-state area that forms the suburbs of Wobegon.]

  29. Be sure to distinguish a “gubbins” from a “gubbing”: the latter refers to a sound thrashing received, for example, in a game of rugby. As might be: “Galashiels got a right gubbing from Hawick last season”.

  30. Is Galashiels pronounced as it’s spelt, or is it “Gills” or “Galls”? (I know Hawick is “Hoik”.)

  31. In Scottish English, as spelt; in Scots, it’s often abbreviated to Golly. For reasons historical, Jedburgh often becomes Jedhart, pronounced Jed’art. You really ought to spend an afternoon at one of the Border “sports” at a Spring weekend i.e. at the seven-a-side rugby tournaments – in my experience, among the best of all sporting outings.

  32. @Stephen Judd: that’s fascinating! I’m also Kiwi and don’t remember ever hearing it with this meaning; for me it’s pretty much baked into “silly gubbins”. Do we have so much internal variation?

  33. I often hear the word (now based in the south-east of England), although I don’t think I use it a lot (originally from north-west England). Off the top of my head I would have said it meant ‘whatsit’ or ‘thingy’ but have just done a search of my Inbox and found it in a couple of emails from a friend referring to computer stuff (‘have just had a big box delivered containing what I imagine is the new router and all its gubbins’ and ‘I’ve lost all the registrations so have to reinstall all those gubbins’), so she (from south of England) uses it to mean technical bits and pieces.

  34. seven-a-side rugby tournaments – in my experience, among the best of all sporting outings
    Agreed. Knackering to play in, but exhilarating to watch (not on tv).

  35. John Emerson says

    My son played rugby for awhile and got me to watch it some, and it looks like a far superior support to American football both for participants and for spectators. Not so much standing-around time, for starters. Less specialization for another.
    American football prepares you better for being a cog in a wheel, though, which is what life is all about these days.

  36. I’m not saying that baseball is everybody’s cup of tea, and heaven knows it has plenty of standing-around time, but JE’s “cog” comment reminds me of the late George Carlin on football vs baseball.

  37. It’s roughly synonymous with “guts” for me, in Kent. I hear it most often in the “internal workings” sense, but my mum uses it for “giblets” when cooking…

  38. At one point in Gaudy Night, the Dean refers to someone as a silly gubbins (don’t remember the exact passage at the moment), using the word as a synonym for fool. I don’t think Sayers indicates any specific background for the Dean beyond the fact that she’s an academic, so there’s no telling in which part of England the Dean picked up the word.

  39. Nonsense. It’s not in Tolkien.
    A gubbins is an endearingly silly person. Deficient in feck and hap. I grew up knowing the word in western Oregon.

  40. At one point in Gaudy Night, the Dean refers to someone as a silly gubbins
    Ah, that may well be where I picked it up—I read Gaudy Night many years ago.

  41. Had been wanting to shout, no, re being in Tolkien and Dale emboldened me: but it occurs to me that there is much T. beyond LOTR and the H. (all the T. I’ve read in the last 20+ years) so perhaps after all it is in there somewhere….
    Am in western Oregon for ten years now and I’m sure I’ve yet to hear it: alas if Time has deprived us of gubbins’s use.

  42. Preachy Preach says

    Seemingly like everybody else with a Northern English background, I use ‘gubbins’ as a general word for ‘thingummy’ with an implied focus on the internal bits and bobs that make something work.

  43. Ginger Yellow says

    I’d (mostly southern British English with some American influence) only personally use it in the “internal workings” sense, but I’d understand it in the “stuff” or “thingummy” sense as well. The usage “a gubbins” seems very odd to my ears, though.

  44. Internal workings; guts/viscera; (tangled) mess/muck. S England.

  45. Jane Goodall’s son Hugo Eric Louis von Lawick was called “Grub” by his mother, not “Gubbins”; and no, he was not a chimpanzee, he was a bush baby (technically NSFW).
    “Gubbins” certainly doesn’t appear in the texts of LOTR or The Hobbit; I doubt that Tolkien uses it anywhere else. The word does, however, echo “baggins”, which is also a North Country form, and is defined by the OED as “food eaten between regular meals; now, esp. in Lancashire, an afternoon meal, ‘afternoon tea’ in a substantial form”, where “now” may mean something like “the end of the 19th century”. They use the “rationalized” spelling bagging, but “baggins” is what people say.
    Here’s the OED entry for gubbins in full:
    Also gubbings. Rarely sing. [var. of GOBBON.]
    1. Fragments, esp. of fish; fish-parings. In later use (also const. sing.), trash; anything of little value; a gadget, thingummy. In sing., a fragment. Also fig. and attrib.
    1553 Respublica I. i. 40 in Brandl Dramas (1898) 286 The skimmynges, the gubbins of booties and praies. 1599 NASHE Lenten Stuffe 73 Hough you hungerstarued gubbins, or offalles of men, how thriue you? 1630 J. TAYLOR (Water P.) Wks. II. 165 To be a Laundres, imports onely to wash or dresse Lawne, which is as much impeachment as to cal..a Fishmonger, a seller of Gubbins. Ibid. III. 64/2 All that they could buy, or sell, or barter, Would scarce be worth a Gubbin once a quarter. 1677 MIEGE Fr. Dict., Gubbings, the parings of haberdine, coupures ou rongnures de poisson. 1696 PHILLIPS, A Gubbin (old word), a fragment. 1721-1800 BAILEY, Gubbins, Fragments; the Parings of Haberdine, Codfish, &c. 1754 in Hone Every-day Bk. (1827) II. 827 Cold a cant name he usually called ‘his gubbins’. 1918 P. MACGILL Glenmornan v. 106 That gubbin iv land was at one time nothin’ but a bare rock. 1925 FRASER & GIBBONS Soldier & Sailor Words 112 Gubbins, mere stuff. Trash. Anything of no value{em}e.g., ‘That’s only gubbins, all rot!’ Also, personal effects{em}e.g., ‘See after my gubbins, will you?’ 1944 Amer. Speech XIX. 280 A gubbins is used to describe almost any part of the equipment of a plane, with about the same meaning as gadget. 1958 I. BROWN Words our Time 60 You can save more petrol by how you drive than with the gubbinses now floating around. 1965 Sunday Times (Colour Suppl.) 5 Dec. 16 Many machines flying have a vast illicit complement of rivets, nails, nuts, bolts, torches, pliers and half-eaten sandwiches… One of the modern test pilot’s less enviable jobs is to fly new aircraft upside down and try to catch the gubbins as it hurtles past his face. 1968 New Scientist 3 Oct. 8/2 Behind that again is the engine and propeller, the fuel tank and various bits of ‘gubbins’.
    2. a. A contemptuous name formerly given to the inhabitants of a district near Brent Tor on the edge of Dartmoor, who are said to have been absolute savages. Obs. exc. Hist.
    a1661 FULLER Worthies, Devonshire I. (1662) 248 The Gubbings (so now I dare call them secured by distance) which one of more valour durst not do to their Face..The Gubbings-Land is a Scythia within England, and they pure Heathens therein. 1836 A. E. BRAY Descr. Tamar & Tavy I. Let. xiv. 253 Even at the present day, the term Gubbins is well known in the vicinity..They still have the reputation of having been a wild and almost savage race. 1887 Cornh. Mag. Nov. 508 The race of ‘Gubbins’, as Fuller calls them, may die out. 1900 Scott. N. & Q. Mar. 139/1 Those Welsh bandits recall the Dartmoor ‘Gubbins’ or ‘gubbings’ familiar to readers of Westward Ho.
    b. colloq. A fool, a duffer.
    1916 E. F. BENSON David Blaize vii. 124 ‘Silly gubbins,’ she said. 1955 ‘E. C. R. LORAC’ Ask a Policeman ii. 25 If we only get these old gubbinses out I could let the rooms proper. 1957 [see BATTER n.4].

  46. Yes ‘endearingly silly person’, didn’t know any of the others; used self-referentially like “muggins”. Aust.

  47. It’ll be interesting to see what the revised entry looks like when the OED gets around to it.

  48. J. Del Col says

    “Grub” it was, indeed. My apologies to Eric and the chimps.

  49. Here is a very interesting piece, called The Gubbins of Lydford, about the Dartmoor savages. It seems possible that the dictionary description “savages” comes from Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!. Anyway, it’s a fascinating article that explains quite a lot about this word as well as about the people on Dartmoor — and in more detail than elsewhere.

  50. It’s also possible that there’s a connection between the Gubbins hanging around Lydford and Lydford Castle, which was a stannary prison.

  51. That is interesting reading, well worth it just for the line “Their language is the drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian.”

  52. Yes! I liked that too.

  53. In the Modesty Blaise novel The Impossible Virgin (1971) “gubbins” appears twice, used by the delightful healer-doctor Giles Pennyfeather.
    1. ‘But look here, Sergeant, old man,’ Giles was saying. ‘I’m perfectly in order. Employed by the African Mission Society, got a visa, work permit, all that gubbins.
    2. Slit that the same way as the first incision. Christ, no! Not the scalpel, or you’ll cut the gubbins underneath.
    Then there is my friend the British Esperantist Paul Gubbins….

  54. I bet his ancestors were royalist Devonian savages.

  55. John Emerson says

    To the clergyman of the parish and the neighbourhood they behave in a most shameful manner. They sing obscene songs when the reverend gentleman passes, they perform the most disgusting and nameless acts when he is in the company of ladies and those who are noxious to them they pelt with stones and mud as they go by their wretched domicile. Depredations in the neighbourhood are frequent. Gates and gate-posts and other objects of utility often disappear and threats of violence are common. We may add that members of the family have several times been convicted of offences. And yet these people continue their savage habits to the annoyance and disgust of the neighbours, treating the remonstrances of the clergyman with mockery, ribaldry and obscenity and setting the rules of civilised life at defiance.

  56. John Emerson says

    Many inquisitive persons went to Nymet Rowland to get a peep at the “Savages.” One man, more curious than the general public, approached too near the house, and was at once pounced upon by a couple of Amazons, who demanded a reason for his visit. ” Ladies,” said he “I have lost my way, will you be so good as to put me on the right road to Dartmoor ? ” ” Aw, ess, tü be sure, replied Miss Cheriton, ” come theāse yer way an’ I’ll shaw’e.
    She took him into the adjoining yard for the ostensible purpose of directing him, and the unsuspecting wayfarer, venturing too near the edge of the horse pond in following his guide, was suddenly thrust into the filthy liquid, as a ” There, thicky’s the way tü Dartymoor and be — tü you,” fell on his ears.

  57. Boy, that’s amazing. It makes me realise that what seems sometimes overwrought and farcical in the way Dickens treated these scenes was simply the way things happened in those days.
    The story of the Cheritons as North Devon savages starts in The Times in 1869, whereas Kingsley’s Westward Ho! is from 1855 (and on google maps it’s 26 miles, quite a way, from Nymet Rowland to Lydford). So I bet they got “savages” from Kingsley. Too bad they didn’t use the word “gubbins” too.

  58. Trond Engen says

    It makes me realise thatwhat seems sometimes overwrought and farcical in the way Dickens treated these scenes was simply the way things happened in those days
    Or the way everybody told stories about their (allegedly) less sophisticated neighbours in those days. The American myth of the Appalachians is very similar. And still told, I think.

  59. John Emerson says

    Awhile back, under the impression that it would be grim social realism like Dreiser or Zola, I read some of Erskine Caldwell’s writing about Appalachia. It turned out to be somewhere between caricature and burlesque. The part that stuck in my mind was the scene when a man offered a turnip to a 13 year old girl in exchange for sex, which ended with a detailed description of the girl happily munching down the raw turnip.
    Caldwell had radical sympathies and led an adventurous life, but seems to come from a middle class family. His Wiki article is quite confused; nothing of his I read “extolled the simple life of those less fortunate than he was.”

  60. Erskine Caldwell: Yes, the Wiki article is confusing (Through the 1930s, Caldwell and his wife Helen ran a bookstore in Maine. Caldwell was married to photographer Margaret Bourke-White from 1939 to 1942 … After he came back from World War II, Caldwell took up residence in San Francisco. His ex-wife kept the bookstore in Maine as a property settlement), but what’s also confusing me iis that I was thinking of Erskine “Riddle Of The Sands” Childers.

  61. Kiwi born and raised, with an idiolect heavily influenced by my Anglo-Indian sole parent father. Like many others, I’ve heard the word, and would think of it as a doohickey or wotchamacallit. I don’t think I’ve heard it applied to living creatures before.

  62. Actually, the Dean says “silly cuckoos”, in reference to her students. There is a Miss Gubbins at the Gaudy, however (Miss Lydgate, Harriet’s former tutor in English Literature, is speaking):

    “[Miss de Vine] ought really to have a professorship, but I doubt if she could stand the tutorial side of it. The fewer distractions she has, the better, because she’s one of the real scholars. There she is, over there — and, oh, dear! I’m afraid she’s been caught by Miss Gubbins. You remember Miss Gubbins?”

    “Vaguely,” said Phoebe [a friend of Harriet’s]. “She was Third Year when we were freshers. An excellent soul, but rather earnest, and an appalling bore at College Meetings.”

    “She is a very conscientious person,” said Miss Lydgate, “but she has rather an unfortunate knack of making any subject sound dull. It’s a great pity, because she is exceptionally sound and dependable. However, that doesn’t greatly matter in her present appointment; she holds a librarianship somewhere […].”

  63. It turns out there are two other characters named Gubbins in the Wimsey canon: In Strong Poison, Eva Gubbins is the housekeeper who witnesses Cremorna Garden’s will; in Have His Carcase, we have the Mr. Gubbins who wins the lottery.

  64. … and then there’s Gubbins, part of the informal security crew at Homeward Castle in J. P. Martin’s Uncle books: “Two people were knocking at the moat gate. Uncle was glad to see them, for they were two specially useful fellows, Cloutman and Gubbins. They often come over to stay for a time. Gubbins is a wonderfully strong man. He always arrives with a very heavy trunk and the first thing he does is to rush up the big staircase, carrying his trunk balanced on one hand. Everyone likes to see him do it. Cloutman, on the other hand, cannot carry great weights, but he can strike terrible blows. One smack with his fist can make a lion stagger and fall. He has large bony hands. Uncle was very glad to see these two, as they are specially useful for subduing the Badfort crowd.” — J. P. Martin, /Uncle/, chapter 9

    I think I retreated into J P Martin’s gleefully feudal world as a seven year old, and only venture out if I absolutely must.

  65. @John Cowan: Gubbins sān Gotobed sì would be a likely proverb in the canon

  66. “Einstyne si, Munsters no! Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and go, go, go! Do it now! Get out and get under — or better yet, just get out!”

  67. A nice 17th century pun, (Fuller on the Gubbins of Lydford): During our Civil Wars, no soldiers were quartered amongst them, for fear of being quartered amongst them.

    (AJP’s link was, mirabile dictu, still live after seven years).

  68. Polly Ayers says

    In regard to “gubbins,” in the early 70s while in college, I dated the son of a Scottish woman, born and raised in Scotland, who routinely used the word gubbins when she referred to the mess of crumbs her five (mostly adult) offspring left on the table and floor after one of her large meals. I have always remembered that word and have used it infrequently since then.

  69. David Eddyshaw says

    The British (indeed, Welsh) Alastair Reynolds’ SF novel Revenger uses “gubbins” as a set expression for “incomprehensible alien technology.” This is presumably part of the space pirate theme of the story: as everybody knows, pirates do not speak American. Arrrrrr.

  70. G,MN Claycomb says

    Born in 1945 to a very polite war widow I was raised in Kent, understanding that ‘the gubbins’ usually referred to some tiresome set of instructions or information in an official document. ie “ Here is the folder you need, with all the gubbins”.
    The disparaging connection with fish parings therefore seems pertinent.

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