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Bush Commits Parapraxis

I don’t know if anyone else caught it, but George W. Bush made what was obviously a Freudian slip in his initial appearance last week after the capture of Saddam Hussein. Gazing determinedly into the television cameras, he declared, “I have a message for the American people: You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again.” That the president meant to say “I have a message for the Iraqi people” was made doubly clear by the fact that a minute or two later he declared “I have a message for all Americans” and went on to deliver it. He hardly intended to give Americans two different messages at two different points in his remarks.

Freud would have said about this verbal mishap, I suppose, pretty much what Howard Dean would say — namely, that it shows that Mr. Bush views events in Iraq within the context of American politics. But would Freud have called it a “Freudian slip”? That’s about as likely as Kafka writing in his diary that he had witnessed a “Kafkaesque scene,” or Orwell telling his readers that they lived in an “Orwellian world.” Freud’s concepts were “Freudian” to his followers, not to himself.

In fact, Freud didn’t literally speak about “slips” of the tongue, either. The German word he used for such an occurrence was Versprechen, a noun formed from the verb sprechen, “to speak,” and the prefix ver-, which often has the sense in German of doing something wrong or mistakenly, much like the English prefix “mis-.” A Versprechen is a “misspeech,” just as Freud’s term for a “slip of the pen” was Verschreiben, “miswriting,” and just as he used the terms Verlesen, “misreading,” and Verhören, “mishearing,” for what we might but don’t call in English a “slip of the eye” and a “slip of the ear.” His general term for all slips was Fehlleistungen, a compound noun formed from fehl, “false, wrong, inappropriate,” and Leistung, “performance, achievement, something done.”

Freud mainly wrote about Fehlleistungen in his “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” a book that, in the words of a recent essay on the translation of him by his investigator Sarah Boxer, “is not just a book of slips but a cultural document of its time” in which we get “a glimpse into just how obsessed the aspiring bourgeoisie [of Vienna], especially the Jewish bourgeoisie, was with verbal correctness.” In the standard English translation of “The Psychopathology” by James Strachey, published nearly 50 years ago, Fehlleistung is rendered by the unwieldy Greek word “parapraxis,” with its prefix “para-,” i.e., “incorrect” or “abnormal,” and its noun “praxis,” forming an exact parallel to Fehlleistung. As Boxer points out, this is but one of numerous cases in which some of Freud’s translators, feeling the need to make his theories seem impressively “scientific,” opted to use fancy Greek or Latin words where he himself made do with simple German ones. Our Latinate “ego” and “id,” for instance, are Freud’s das ich and das es, directly translatable as “the I” and “the It”; the English psychoanalytic term “cathexis,” defined as “the concentration of emotional energy upon some object or idea,” was Freud’s ordinary German Besetzung (“occupation”), and so forth.

To accuse President Bush of a parapraxis would be to spring a word on him that even his Yale education is unlikely to have prepared him for and Boxer quite rightly commends Anthea Bell, the translator of the new Penguin edition of “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” for using “slip” instead. “It sounds good,” she writes, “and we all know what it means in a Freudian context.” The one thing Boxer fails to explain is how “slip” came to be used in conjunction with Freud in the first place. “Freudian slip” is an expression that’s been around for a long time. Who coined it?

Although “Freudian slip” could have been the invention of anyone, we do know who first used “slip” in print for Freud’s Versprechen. This was his earliest English translator, the American psychiatrist A.A. Brill, whose edition of “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” appeared in 1914, 13 years after the book’s publication in German. Brill translated Versprechen as “slip of the tongue,” although interestingly, while he also used “slip” for Fehlleistung, he did not use it for Verlesen or Verschreiben, which he rendered as a “lapse in reading” and a “lapse in writing.” Perhaps that is why to this day the expression “Freudian slip,” which undoubtedly owes its origin to Brill’s translation, is generally taken to refer to a Versprechen.

George W. Bush, in any event, is not the first president to commit one. One of the examples given by Freud of Freudian slips was of the president of the Austrian House of Deputies, who opened a session by pounding with his gavel and calling out, “Honored sirs, I declare this session closed!” No doubt he wished it was already over with. Mr. Bush must feel the same about Iraq.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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