What is a Freudian slip? Well, before we offer a definition, perhaps by way of introduction (or an introduction of sorts), here’s a joke: ‘What’s a Freudian slip? It’s when you say one thing and mean your mother.’ We never said it would be a good joke.
This joke, such as it is, does neatly encapsulate and define the two key features of what is commonly referred to as a Freudian slip: namely that it involves misspeaking and that the error we make reveals – or is said to reveal – some deep, latent desire or motivation on our part.
We’ve probably all got stories about where we ‘misspoke’ and said something – often something with a suggestive double meaning – when we meant to say something else. To give one example, James Naughtie, the BBC radio presenter, got in hot water a few years ago for rhymingly referring to the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as – well, no need to repeat what he did say, but let’s just say he claimed to have conflated the words ‘culture’ and ‘Hunt’ to form a new portmanteau for Jeremy Hunt’s surname, much as ‘Berkshire hunt’, as well as giving us the insult ‘berk’, also started out as Cockney rhyming slang for a certain rude word.
Naughtie’s error may have been an innocent mix-up of letters, but when the then Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2012 that his party were ‘raising more money for the rich’ – where he meant to say ‘the poor’ – was there something else unconsciously driving his slip? Was this one not so innocent?
This is the thinking that underpins Sigmund Freud’s concept of parapraxis, which is the technical name Freud gave to what we commonly refer to as the Freudian slip. He first used the term (although ‘parapraxis’ was actually the word Freud’s English translator, James Strachey, used for this phenomenon) in his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which might be summarised as the book that took Freud’s ideas from his previous book The Interpretation of Dreams and applied them to our waking, everyday, working lives rather than our night-time dreams. The word ‘parapraxis’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘beside the act’ or ‘beside the practice’. In other words, parapraxis is when you don’t act or speak as you intended to, but do some alternative, unintended act.
And ‘act’ is the key word. For although parapraxis is most commonly linked to speech acts, the word’s meaning – as the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear – is actually somewhat broader: ‘A minor error in speech or action, (supposedly) representing the fulfilment of an unconscious wish; a Freudian slip.’ The OED cites James Strachey’s English translation of Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916): ‘Certain phenomena … are what are known as “parapraxes”, to which everyone is liable … for instance … a person who intends to say something may use another word.’
So, a Freudian slip or parapraxis is when we say one thing but mean another, but for Freud and those who followed him in the field of psychoanalysis, such a slip is always revealing of something going on in our unconscious. Was David Cameron’s unconscious allowing his conscious mind to reveal his true allegiances (to the rich rather than the poor)? Does James Naughtie unconsciously think Jeremy Hunt a … rogue?
The problem with Freudian theory, as Terry Eagleton remarks in his book Literary Theory, is that it just isn’t testicle (by which he means ‘testable’). It’s possible that such slips are ‘proof’ of the unconscious, and that they show Freud’s theories to be correct. But they could just as easily be innocent mistakes, or they might be telling mistakes that have nothing to do with the ‘unconscious’, at least as Freud theorises it. For this reason – the fact that Freudian psychoanalysis remains intriguing but ultimately speculative rather than scientific – Freud’s ideas are not widely taught or studied on modern psychology courses. However, his cultural impact on the world has been immeasurable, and his ideas have genuine validity and applicability for the analysis of literary texts.
But to return to the joke with which we began this post: why should a Freudian slip be defined or described as ‘when you say one thing and mean your mother’? Because for Freud, the mother is an important figure – indeed, perhaps the important figure – in a child’s development. One of Freud’s most well-known and controversial ideas is the Oedipus complex, the phenomenon whereby a very young child is attracted to its mother and becomes jealous of its father, whom the child regards as its rival for the mother’s affection. In summary, the Oedipus complex is about the child’s attachment to its mother, the psychical energy it has towards its mother as an object of desire.
This means that, in Freudian psychoanalysis, the mother is linked to the child’s libido, and thus to sexual desire. And so, for Freud, parapraxis or the humble Freudian slip can reveal all sorts of unconscious desires or wishes. It doesn’t have to be sexual, or even about desire per se: it might be a simple wish. Someone in a meeting who has missed their breakfast and feeling hungry, already thinking ahead to a mid-morning snack they intend to buy from the local bakery, might refer in a moment of absentmindedness to ‘the Dos and Doughnuts of such an undertaking’, but this is merely because they have been thinking about doughnuts just before this, so their mind was off the task. And it’s worth remembering that the very idea that ‘Freudian slips’ are necessarily meaningful and reveal our secret motives or desires (rather than being an innocent slip of the tongue due to tiredness, thinking too quickly, nervousness, or any other number of reasons) remains speculative rather than proved.