Sigmund Freud himself called them Fehlleistungen, German for «false action». However, when translating his book «Psychopathology of Everyday Life» into English, a staff member used the Greek term παράπρᾶξις (parapraxis), which literally means «another action».
We know this phenomenon as the «Freudian caveat», which is a kind of key to our unconscious.
The subconscious mind is a godsend for a spy!
In Ukraine, such clauses as the advice to «get used to the land» by Kyiv mayor Volodymyr Klitschko or the «cynical Bandera» of former president Petro Poroshenko have long been memes. In their line of work, these people have to talk too much.
But before they turn into sound vibrations and are uttered, the brain selects words to express our thoughts. Researchers studied it with the help of a tomograph, and found out that most mistakes appear even at the moment of talking «inside itself», are identified and filtered by the brain, so most of them are not pronounced out loud.
Statistics show that we do not fall into the verbal traps very often, making mistakes on the average of 22 pronounced words out of 15 thousand. As a rule, they occur when the brain’s control over verbal behavior is impaired. Mostly it happens in situations of stress, excitement, fatigue, or, for example, alcohol intoxication.
The likelihood of reservations increases with the rate of speech. Naturally, it is higher in childhood, when the child is just learning to speak, and in old age. That is to say, in any situation where consciousness gives way to unconsciousness, it is happy to spill our secrets to the world. Or at least what, in terms of the popular understanding of Freudism, is a secret.
How the White House «didn’t have enough sex»
In 1988, George H.W. Bush, speaking about the results of his work with Ronald Reagan, decided to be objective, not only about the victories, but also about the failures. Among the administration’s mistakes he cited «the usual lack of sex», but then quickly corrected himself: «the usual lack of agricultural policy».
But it was too late – the Freudian slip had already spread. For a long time Americans discussed Bush and Reagan, who lacked sex: some mocked, others sympathized, and others gave advice to members of the presidential administration on how to improve the sex life… Even White House received letters from kind-hearted American women who were not averse to helping «poor» Joe and Ron.
Although there were those who believed Bush’s reservation was deliberate, and contributed to his popularity. It was argued that the «lack of sex» was part of a political technique to rejoice in any widely circulated information about himself, except the obituary. Whether this was true or not is now difficult to ascertain.
Deliberate bloopers and pre-planned impromptus are widely used in modern advertising and pr-campaigns. As for politicians and other speakers, their brains are often in a state of stress – preparing for an important speech, a person tries hard not to seem ridiculous and stupid and as a result … makes a mistake.
The polar bear of the «ant fraternity»
In the 1980s, the social psychologist Daniel Wegner put forward a theory with which he tried to explain the origin of Freudian reservations. At least some of them. According to Wegner, the more we suppress some thought, the more time our consciousness spends working with it and becoming fixated. The psychologist called it the «polar bear effect» (other definitions later appeared – the «boomerang effect» and the «ironic process effect»).
Wegner discovered this effect in Leo Tolstoy’s Memoirs, where the writer spoke of a childhood game of «ant fraternity» that he invented with his brothers in Yasnaya Polyana. The main goal of the «brotherhood» was to achieve universal happiness, including through some rituals invented by his older brother Nicholas.
One such exercise was to stand in a corner and by no means think of a polar bear. Leo Tolstoy recalls that he did not succeed – he tried with all his might to get the bear out of his head, but all his thoughts went in a circle and were exclusively about the bear. Wegner then repeatedly experimented with the «bear effect» with his students – each time the result was the same as Tolstoy’s.
«Buns» are not all buns!
Michael Motley of the University of California decided to prove the non-randomness of our speech errors. He formed several groups of men, and some were greeted at the beginning of the experiment by a middle-aged professor and others by an assistant, whose attire blatantly demonstrated «feminine charms». Reading a certain set of words in her presence, the men not only made more mistakes, there was a high proportion of reservations with sexual overtones among them.
Finally, Motley asked the men to continue the phrase «The old man baked big… out of flour», using various words such as «bread», «pies», «pizzas», «pies», etc. If Freud himself had been present at the experiment, he would have given it a standing ovation: under the influence of the attraction to a girl in a revealing outfit with a deep cleavage, most men chose the word «dual purpose» – «buns».
The fact is that back in «Psychopathology of Everyday Life», Freud told of a young man who in conversation with him could not remember the quite neutral Latin word aliquis (someone), constantly stumbling over aqua (water), sanguis (blood) or fastis (calendar). Freud dug deeper and discovered the reason for the forgetfulness: his interlocutor’s brain blocked out disturbing thoughts about his mistress’ delayed menses, but his anxiety still broke through in a form of his reservations.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!
There is, however, one subtlety here. Does every reservation we make have sexual connotations? Does the «lack of sex» in the vice-president’s speech mean that Bush and Reagan were intimate with each other? And some experts in the U.S. made such assumptions quite seriously! Obviously not.
This was successfully proved by a contemporary of Freud, the Viennese philologist Rudolf Meringer, who thoroughly analyzed his collection of many hundreds of mistakes. It must be said that Freud himself most likely did not consider any of our words, used objects or performed actions to be «sexual» symbols either.
There is a parable about how Freud, who loved to smoke cigars, was once pointed out that this elongated object was, according to his own theory, a symbol of the phallus. Freud resolved the apparent contradiction very simply: «Gentlemen, – replied the founder of psychoanalysis, – sometimes there are cases where a cigar in the mouth is just a cigar and nothing more!». Belgian psycholinguist Rob Hartsjoeker argues that Freud is not so wrong in this case: modern evidence suggests that true Freudian reservations are quite rare.
Accidentally saying to one’s wife «you’re an old map» instead of «my sunshine» is more characteristic of an anecdote than of real life. However, when a TV presenter says «pussy» instead of «song», «climax» instead of «Klimovsk», or «big-dick tournament» instead of «Grand Slam Tournament», it’s hard to escape the thought that Sigmund Freud’s theory of speech sublimation is correct.
Even a mentally healthy person would be cognitively dissonant if he were to «love children in the literal and figurative sense of the word», as ex-President Viktor Yanukovych said.
However, most reservations are quite harmless, often composed deliberately, and, except for laughter and positive emotions, do not appeal to anything. These are so-called «spoonerisms», named after the famous Oxford professor Archibald Spooner, whose reservations have amused generations of students and teachers.
Thus the words of the hymn «Conquering Kings Their Titles Take» became Spooner’s «Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take». It is difficult to determine whether the wily professor did this deliberately, mocking his listeners, or whether the clauses were the result of his phenomenal absent-mindedness, of which there were legends.
In any case, spunerisms have long been a fact of the literary game, giving rise to numerous «in the forge sat the grasshopper», «zapletok lazhen», «Bronetemkin «Ponosets», «champagne stakanskogo», «Predskazamus nastradal», etc.
Clearly, there is no sexual connotation to this intentional play on words, and «grass in the forge» signals only your sense of humor, not your lebido at all. And this grammatical error is really just a mistake, too (the correct word is «libido», as you may have guessed).