Named after the Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the phrase Freudian slip denotes:
– a slip of the tongue that is motivated by, and reveals, some unconscious aspect of the mind;
– and, by extension, any unintended action regarded as revealing unconscious motives, desires, etc.
Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, emphasised the significance of unconscious processes in normal and neurotic behaviour; according to him, slips of the tongue are not simple accidents, but reveal unconscious wishes and conflicts.
[cf. also: spoonerism – marrowsky – eggcorn]
The earliest instances of Freudian slip that I have found are:
– from articles by Marjorie Dorman, published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York City, N.Y., USA);
– attributed to Dr. Arthur Frank Payne, a psychologist.
The earliest of these occurrences is from Woman’s Natural Hostility To Woman Blamed for Catty Comment on Ruth, published on Friday 14th October 1927:
Men today all over the world laud the bravery of Ruth Elder 1, who by remaining aloft almost 3,000 miles broke a world’s record over the Atlantic. Women, on the other hand, disparage, with faint praise and open criticism, the great achievement.
The contrast in the attitude of the two sexes toward the American girl is so marked that it evoked comment from Dr. Arthur Frank Payne, the psychologist.
Dr. Payne regarded a morning newspaper. He laughed outright.
“Compare what Dr. Katherine Bement Davis 2, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winifred Sackville Stoner had to say with the heavy ring of the praise and approval of men such as Clarence Chamberlin, Bellanca, President Fairchild of the Aviation Corporation and Edgar M. Gott. With men eulogizing our brave American girl, what are the women doing?
“The women term her great achievement a waste of time, foolhardy, and unnecessary.
“Take Dr. Davis, for instance. She made what we psychologists call a Freudian slip. She says that there is no woman alive equipped for such a flight. That is nonsense—there’s no other word for it. She asks, even if Miss Elder had succeeded, ‘what would she have accomplished for the common good?’ But I will hazard a guess that she did not feel that way about Lindbergh. Her slip is the statement that she does not say this just because Ruth Elder is a woman.
“That is exactly why she said it. There is no reason why a woman should not be equipped to fly a plane, and they are so equipped.”
1 Ruth Elder (1902-77) was a U.S. aviatrix and actress. In October 1927, she attempted a transatlantic flight from New York on board The American Girl, with George Haldeman (1898-1982) as her pilot. Mechanical problems caused them to ditch the plane some 350 miles off the Azores.
2 Katharine Bement Davis (1860-1935) was a U.S. social reformer and criminologist. According to the Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania, USA) of Saturday 15th October 1927, this is what she declared in reaction to the news of Ruth Elder’s rescue:
Dr. Katherine E. Davis, leader in sociology—“I don’t believe that any one, man or woman, should undertake a venture unless perfectly equipped as to physical makeup and past training and experience. Even if she had succeeded, what would she have accomplished for the common good?”
The second-earliest instances of Freudian slip are from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Friday 15th March 1929:
TAFT 3 WAS GUILTY OF FREUDIAN SLIP, SAYS PSYCHOLOGIST
How Judge Taft Made His “Freudian Slip”
What Chief Justice Taft said delivering the oath of office to President Hoover 4: “Preserve, maintain and defend” (the Constitution).
How the oath really reads: “Preserve, protect and defend.”
Justice Taft thought he had said “preserve, maintain and protect,” but sound films proved him to be in error. Even if he had said what he thought he said he would have been in error.
3 William Howard Taft (1857-1930) was the 27th President of the United States (1909-13) and the 10th Chief Justice of the United States (1921-30).
4 Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964) was the 31st President of the United States (1929-33).
Marjorie Dorman gave the following details in Psychologist Finds Taft Guilty of Freudian Slip In Administering Oath, published in the same issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
That Chief Justice Taft, taken to task by Helen Terwilliger, 13-year-old school girl of Walden, N. Y., for incorrectly administering the oath of office to President Hoover—a fact proven yesterday by the infallible records of the sound-news reels—was guilty of a “Freudian slip,” was stated today by Dr. Arthur Frank Payne, psychologist, of 65 Park ave., Manhattan.
“The issue is of no importance whatever from the standpoint of the validity of the oath or politically,” said the noted psychoanalyst, “but it is very interesting from the standpoint of psychology. The Chief Justice made what is known to psychologists as a Freudian slip.
Similar Slips Are Frequent.
“Such slips occur all the time and go unnoticed. Due, however, to the importance of the occasion the slip assumes a much greater importance than it actually merits. Hundreds of times daily other men make such slips and they go unnoticed. Such errors arise from the subconscious mind in moments of emotional stress. The slip on the part of the kindly, sympathetic but intensely patriotic Mr. Taft should add to the love and respect in which the country holds him. If anything, he improved the oath of office by the earnestness and fervor in which, because this nation is so dear to him, he administered it. He was not letter perfect because despite the dignity of his demeanor his subconscious mind was so profoundly moved.
Changed Word Before Employing It
“He had in his subconscious mind the fierce desire and mental set to protect and defend his country, and in his eagerness to bring out the word ‘defend’ he changed the word employed before it.
“Emotion hinders cool, abstract thought, and a lesson can be drawn here—when making plans for the future, men and women should eliminate all emotion and decide such questions coolly. The slip made by Mr. Taft cannot be explained by nervousness or by the importance of the occasion; it can be explained only as due to emotion in the subconscious.
No Inferiority Complex.
“His attitude, now that he realizes that he did administer the oath incorrectly, is typical. He has no inferiority complex, he likes to laugh, and thinks the entire matter a good joke on himself. As a matter of fact the Freudian slip is a credit to him: it proves that, despite his brilliant mind and ability, of course, to be letter perfect, his love for his country swayed him at the moment he approached the word ‘defend.’ That word, after all, includes protect and maintain and preserve. It is the word of vital significance in the oath.
“It is through just such slips as these, by such behavior and mannerisms, that psychologists can tell what is behind the show window people put up to defend themselves against the world. The Freudian slip of Justice Taft is of great psychological interest to all those interested in the study of the subconscious.”
EARLIER TERMS: LAPSUS LINGUAE – LAPSUS CALAMI
An earlier designation of a slip of the tongue is lapsus linguae, from the classical-Latin nouns:
– lapsŭs, meaning, figuratively, a lapse, an error, literally, a slip, a fall;
– lingua, the tongue.
The term lapsus linguae is first recorded in Sr Martin Mar-all; or, The Feign’d Innocence (London, 1668), by the English poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700)—when talking with Mr. Moody, Sir Martin Mar-all (“a Fool”) involuntarily reveals that he already knows Mr. Moody’s daughter, Mrs. Millisent, despite the efforts of Warner, Sir Martin Mar-all’s servant, to stop his master from revealing this acquaintance:
– Mr. Moody: My Daughter loves serious Plays.
– Sir Martin Mar-all: I have heard her say she loves none but Tragedies.
– Mr. Moody: Where have you heard her say so, Sir?
– Warner: Sir you forget your self, you never saw her in your life before.
– Sir Martin Mar-all: What not at Canterbury, in the Cathedral Church there? this is the impudentest Rascal—
– Warner: Mum, Sir—
– Sir Martin Mar-all: Ah Lord, what have I done! as I hope to be sav’d, Sir, it was before I was aware; for if ever I set eyes on her before this day—I wish—
– Mr. Moody: Come away Daughter I will not trust you in his hands; there’s more in’t than I imagin’d.
Exeunt Moody, Millisent […].
– Sir Martin Mar-all: Why do you frown upon me so, when you know your looks go to the heart of me; what have I done besides a little lapsus linguae?
– Warner: Why, who sayes you have done any thing? you, a meer Innocent.
From the classical-Latin noun călămus, denoting a reed-pen, literally a reed, the term lapsus calami denotes a slip of the pen.
The text in which occurs an early use of lapsus calami shows that slips of the tongue and slips of the pen were known to reveal unconscious wishes and conflicts before Sigmund Freud was even born—this text, published in The Northern Whig (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland) of Saturday 9th September 1837, is a letter in which a person signing themself ‘Umbra Wesleyana’ criticised an article that the editor of the Ulster Times had published:
Was this sentence one of those lapsus linguæ, or rather lapsus calami, which involuntarily betrays what is within?