Lexicon Valley

Say One Thing and Mean Your Mother: The Lasting Legacy of Freud

Sigmund Freud at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in Berlin.

Photo by CLEMENS BILAN/AFP/Getty Images

It is difficult to realize, from a distance of nearly a century, quite the impact that Sigmund Freud and his theories had upon polite society of the 1920s and ‘30s. The novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote that ‘the Oedipus complex was a household word, the incest motive a commonplace of tea-time chat,’ and popular guides to psychoanalysis proliferated, with titles like What is Psychoanalysis? (Isador Coriat, 1919) and Psycho-analysis for Normal People (Geraldine Coster, 1926).

Although most of the people who discussed his theories didn’t take them all entirely seriously, they nevertheless discussed them. Some were shocked (in a 1931 edition of London Quarterly Review, E.S. Waterhouse noted that ‘Freud’s unrestrained emphasis on sex was an offence to the traditional British reticence on such topics’), some were amused (the comical periodical Punch had something of a field day with Freudianism), and some—of course—were card-carrying believers, but the most important thing for Freud’s linguistic legacy was that people were talking. To give an indication of the craze for Freudianism, Frederick Hoffman suggested in 1945 that ‘it is hardly likely that any thinking literate person who in any way associated himself with the world of letters failed to encounter the new psychology.’ Freud was most certainly on everyone’s tongue.


Not so inferior

It’s interesting to note how Freudian terminology became part of everyday vocabulary, at least for a period. A useful example is the term inferiority complex: ‘generalized and unrealistic feelings of inadequacy caused by a person’s reactions to actual or supposed inferiority in one sphere.’ Although Freud does not provide the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s earliest example of the term, translations of his work certainly helped popularize it in England. This graph shows the term’s changing fashion over the course of the 20th century, with a clear peak in the wake of Freud’s work.


A shifting awareness of psychoanalytic terminology can be seen in one useful comparison. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels—representing the fictional diaries of a middle-class housewife—were very popular in the 1930s, and each of the first three books (published in 1930, 1932, and 1934) mention inferiority complex:

1930: (Query: Is not the inferiority complex, about which so much is written and spoken, nowadays shifting from the child to the parent?)

1932: [Emma] adds that we ought to get on well together, as we have identical inferiority complexes.  Red-haired lady and I look at one another with mutual hatred.

1934: Just as inferiority complex threatens to overwhelm me altogether […]

When the (unnamed) Provincial Lady initially uses the term, it is a foreign concept that requires some introduction. In the second book it is evidently still considered an unusual phrase that the narrator doesn’t embrace, but doesn’t require glossing for the reader. By 1934, inferiority complex is no longer given any fanfare, but is simply incorporated into the narrative, unannounced. This microcosm of psychoanalytic linguistic change reflects middlebrow society’s gradual incorporation of Freudian vocabulary.


Freudian slip

Freud is perhaps best remembered now in the term Freudian slip—an unintentional mistake that seems to reveal subconscious feelings. This can take the form of saying or writing an incorrect word; the example given in the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language is as follows:


She: What would you like: bread and butter or cake?
He: Bed and butter

The implication is, of course, that the gentleman in this exchange has his mind on more intimate possibilities than food.

However, Freud’s work used neither this term nor this narrow definition. Freud considered slips of the tongue as only one instance of the phenomenon; he also suggested that it could take the form of forgetting a detail completely (rather than giving a false substitute). And, in fact, the words Freudian slip don’t appear to have been used together by anybody during Freud’s lifetime. In his original German writings, particularly in 1901’s Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life), Freud described these slips as Fehlleistungen (translating as ‘failures’ or ‘faulty actions’). When the works were translated into English by James Strachey, the Greek word parapraxis was used (meaning ‘another action’); Stratchey’s 1916 translation of Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is the earliest known example of this use in English.


Old words; new meanings

Freud’s work is quoted more than 150 times in the OED, but as he wrote his major works in his native German, almost all his citations in the OED are filtered through the hands of translators. In some instances, this will have been no more than a simple translation of words that already existed in both English and German, brought together to form a new compound word—such as dream interpretation (1913) or father surrogate (1950), the latter only translated after Freud had died. Other cases, as seen with Fehlleistungen/parapraxis, are more complex.


Another point that should be kept in mind is that Freud often introduced new senses to existing words. Many became popular with their new psychoanalytical connotations, but certainly weren’t introduced to the language by Freud or his translators—indeed, adding senses to familiar words helped spread awareness of Freudian theories without blinding the layman with off-putting vocabulary. Anxiety was a noun long before Freud was born, but the 1909 translation of Freud’s work on hysteria is cited as the first known example of anxiety as ‘a morbid state of mind characterized by unjustified or excessive anxiety.’


Similarly, sublimation (in its chemical sense of converting a solid directly to a gas) has existed since the 14th century, and other chemical, geological, medical, and additional broader senses developed over the years; Freudians writing in English adopted the word to mean ‘the action or process of diverting or modifying the energy derived from an instinctual impulse’—e.g. a sexual impulse being sublimated into a socially more acceptable activity. The same linguistic process happened when a specifically psychoanalytical sense was introduced to the many-centuries-old word compulsion; these are just three examples of many.

Although the vogue for Freudianism died down around the time of the Second World War, Freud’s legacy to the English language has continued—even without us necessarily realizing it. Many words and senses associated with Freud are still in common use—character-trait, repression, libido, for more examples—and many more people are familiar with the rudiments of, say, the inferiority complex than with other comparable details of academic psychology. He may have become rather a punchline (my friend, for instance, owns a pair of ‘Freudian slippers’), believed, as was written in a 1921 journal called Saturday Review, to ‘wallow in sex.’ But there’s no disputing that, along the way, he had a lusting, er, lasting impact on the English language.

A version of this post appeared on the OxfordWords blog.