Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As I mentioned before, I’ve spent the last few days out of town, at a major conference for one of my other jobs. The conference was interesting to me as a phonetician, hearing all the various accents from around the country, but the most interesting (and funny) language moment occurred during the closing ceremonies.

A slip worthy of the ages

The conference, discussing Residence Hall life, took place on a college campus, and the 1000+ people attending were each assigned rooms in the Residence Halls on campus. So, everybody was staying in first-year dorms, with the same shared bathrooms, roommates, and tiny rooms as any incoming student would have. By no means were these luxury accommodations, but they didn’t have to be, we’re all used to Dorm life anyways, and what was provided was quite sufficient for the weekend.

Perhaps most wonderful Freudian slip I’ve seen in a long time happened during the closing ceremonies for this conference. So, myself and 1000+ other people are sitting in the main arena, and one of the conference coordinators is speaking to the entire group. He’s going through and thanking each different group or committee that made the conference possible, and then finally, he says (paraphrased) “I’d like to thank the University’s Housing and Conference services department for providing us with our unremarkable accommodations”.

A long moment passed, and then a good portion of the arena burst into laughter. He realized several seconds later what he had said, but by then, it was too late, and his correction was overwhelmed by the laughter, and his original meaning of “remarkable accommodations” was lost to history.

This is a truly amazing example of a “Freudian slip”.

Parapraxis 101

A Freudian Slip (or Parapraxis) is where one’s subconscious thoughts are somehow expressed on the surface through their words or actions. This often happens through name replacement (“I love you Laura” when Laura is your mistress’ name, not your wife’s), or through other “slips of the tongue” (“I would do anything to you” as opposed to “I would do anything for you”). No matter the form it takes, the most basic requirement for a speech error to be considered an instance of Parapraxis is that you end up communicating something you didn’t intend to but were likely thinking subconsciously.

According the Wikipedia article on Freudian Slips, Freud thought that these slips had a psychological meaning:

The Freudian slip is named after Sigmund Freud, who described the phenomenon he called Fehlleistung (literally meaning “faulty action” in German, but termed as parapraxis in English) in his 1901 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud gives several examples of seemingly trivial, bizarre or nonsensical Freudian slips in Psychopathology; the analysis is often quite lengthy and complex, as was the case with many of the dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams.

Popularization of the term has diluted its technical meaning in some contexts to include any slip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, often in an attempt by the user to humorously assign hidden motives or sexual innuendo to the mistake. It is not clear, however, what Freud considered an “innocent” mistake, or if he thought that there were any innocent mistakes. The enormous quantity of slips analyzed in psychopathology, many of which are banal or apparently trivial, would seem to indicate that Freud felt almost any seemingly tiny slip or hesitation would respond to analysis.

Context is everything

The social power of these slips lies in the context in which they occur. For instance, had we all been housed in a five star hotel and the speaker still said “unremarkable”, it might still be funny, but it’d be more of a simple speech error. The beauty of a Freudian slip comes from the fact that it reveals the truth (or one’s true feelings), even while a person tries to cover it up.

Because everybody knew that the accommodations were, in fact, quite unremarkable, when he misspoke, it was both extremely funny and extremely telling. He unconsciously violated the social norm as well as catching himself in his own distortion of the truth in front of 1000+ people.

So, the moral of this story is that you’re never safe from your own inner thoughts. Although some people can become very adept at lying (or mild distortion of the truth), a single speech error could pop up and blow your entire cover. You can pay close attention to your words, and try to suppress your subconscious, but sooner or later, everybody slips up.


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