Are slips of the tongue really random?

Sometimes, I wish they were

Farid Alsabeh

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Photo by Reimond de Zuñiga on Unsplash

Freud is often criticized for having an overdeveloped sense of attribution: for finding meaning in every nook and cranny of experience, in ways that are seemingly obsessive, borderline paranoid, and not infrequently obscene.

It’s no surprise, then, that he considers slips of the tongue — which now bear his name as Freudian slips — to be meaningful mistakes, insisting that they reveal something about the speaker: that these mis-sayings, nonetheless, say something.

This heavy-handed emphasis is tempered by one simple observation. Some slips appear not to relate to any disavowed intention on the part of the speaker (the standard Freudian hypothesis), but rather, the phonetic properties of the words involved.

Two examples of these slips come from my experiences in grad school, owing to my tendency to record, in the back of my notebooks, the various verbal mistakes of my professors — which sometimes yielded insights no less instructive than the contents of their lectures.

The first example comes from a lecture in Human Behavior and Development. The phrase was, “The last fifteen years or show, with the intended phrase having been, “The last fifteen years or so show”.

Analyzing this slip, we see plainly that the sound ‘sh’, intended for the word ‘show’, has inserted itself into the previous word ‘so’, which incidentally, conspired to recreate the word in the process.

The second example comes from a lecture in Psychological Assessments. The phrase was, “Continuing educration, with the intended phrase having been, “Continuing education credits”.

Here we find that the sound ‘cr’, intended for the word ‘credits’, has instead been stuffed into the word ‘education’, creating an inadvertent neologism.

Attentive readers may have already noticed what these two slips have in common. They resulted from a kind of ‘retroactive insertion’, whereby the sound of a subsequent word was produced by the speaker too early, becoming part of the previous word.

Why do these examples strike us as meaningless? Because their explanation appears to be found only in the phonetic properties of the words involved. We’re…

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