Slips of the Tongue

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Slips of the tongue are errors involving the uttering (Versprechen), or hearing (Verhören), or writing (Verschreiben), or reading (Verlesen) of a word and which entail an involuntary parody of the word, assuming the word is known. This kind of slip is an ordinary occurrence but is structurally related to the paraphasias found in pathological conditions.

Freud became interested in slips and word play in 1890, and discussed them in his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess. Both resemble dreams in that they are part of normal behavior although they introduce an incongruous and, in the case of slips of the tongue and dreams, an involuntary element. Freud's interest arose from his conviction that it would be impossible to understand psychopathological processes without having a clear notion of their relation to normal mental processes. It was in The Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life (1901b) that he provided the first and most complete discussion of slips of the tongue, but he discussed them again at length in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-1917a [1915-1917]).

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud made use of an earlier, essentially functionalist work on slips of the tongue and reading errors (Meringer and Mayer, 1895), which he contrasted with his own theory. He eliminated two hypotheses: that of the "contamination" of the sound of one word by another and that of "wandering" speech images, which interested Freud to the extent that these disturbances were located below the threshold of consciousness (1901b, pp. 57-58). Using numerous examples, some of which are undeniably comical, Freud illustrated the way in which repressed drives return in the disturbance of language.

Slips during reading and writing are not structurally different from those that occur in hearing or speaking, and the same motives are found in both, either libidinal or hostile. But slips provide infinite forms of expression for those drives, while disguising them, and some require a complex effort of interpretation that presupposes familiarity with the life and memories of their author. In general, slips of the pen are not as readily noticed by their authors as slips of the tongue.

Freud sums up the character of slips of the tongue as follows in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: "the suppression of the speaker's intention to say something is the indispensable condition for the occurrence of a slip of the tongue." However, the intention can be conscious or unconscious and still produce a slip. "In almost every case in which a slip of the tongue reverses the sense, the disturbing intention expresses the contrary to the disturbed one and the parapraxis represents a conflict between two incompatible inclinations."

Slips are especially interesting when they lead us, in trying to understand them, to dissociate the sound (the signifier) from the meaning contained in the word (the signified). The same was true for the most famous parapraxis made by Freud, forgetting the name Signorelli, to which Jacques Lacan (1966) devoted an entire essay. We find in both word play and jokes, as in slips or the forgetting of names, a complex dynamic and the same processes (displacement and condensation) that Freud showed to be operative in dreams, whose relevance for the study of the unconscious he recognized. Listening for slips of our own often has an immediate revelatory component, similar to that of the patient who hears himself say things that are unknown and yet familiar during the course of analysis.

SOPHIE DE MIJOLLA-MELLOR

See also: Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; Formations of the unconscious; Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; Language and disturbances of language; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Parapraxis; Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The; Repression; Substitutive formation; Topology. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
   * ——. (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Le Seuil.
   * Meringer, Rudolf, and Mayer, Carl. (1895). Versprechen und Verlesen: eine psychologisch-linguistiche Studie. Stuttgart: G.J. Göschen.

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