Your Mother Should Know


We have all said and heard someone say something that is considered to be a “Freudian slip.” We attach that phrase to what are often embarrassing slips of the tongue, though sometimes we just accidentally use the wrong word. Not to blame Sigmund Freud but in those cases, we interpret them to be more revealing of some unconscious thought.

In the cartoon example above “another” slips into becoming “your mother.” You probably know a bit about Freud and if you do it’s likely that you know that mothers and fathers play big roles in Freudian psychology. Freud would call that a “symptomatic action,” and say it was just just a slip of the tongue.

Another humorous Freudian slip would be a man saying he was unhappy and felt a “need to change my wife” when he meant to say “I need to change my life.” Linguistic error or something deeper?

I read some Freud when I was in high school because I had become very interested in trying to interpret my dreams. Freud wrote that “In the same way that psycho-analysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of the numerous little slips and mistakes which people make—symptomatic actions, as they are called […] I have pointed out that these phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations, that they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed impulses and intentions. (Freud, An Autobiographical Study, 1925)

Freud believed that it was our unconscious mind that unlocked our behaviors. Dreams and slips of the tongue reveal those hidden thoughts. “Freudian slips” is our common term. Freud used the German word Fehlleistungen meaning something like “faulty actions.” A translator used the term parapraxes  and the phrase “symptomatic action.

A lot of Freud’s theories are questioned these days and some psychologists and linguists believe that many cases of Freudian slips are really more indicators of the way language is formed in the brain.

I think language explains why Pope Francis was delivering a sermon at the Vatican in 2014, when he accidentally said cazzo instead of caso. Unfortunately, the latter means “example” while the former translates as “fuck.”

Senator Ted Kennedy gave a speech about education and said “Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast – the best – and brightest.”  That is probably also a language thing – but I’m less sure of it than with the Pope.

Do you think a Freudian slip is the unconscious speaking out or a result of a linguistic misfire?

An earlier version of this post appeared at the One-Page Schoolhouse

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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