It’s a parapraxis, Dr. Fraud

Friday, April 22, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 16

He intended to say, “I’m so glad to see you!” It came out “I’m so sad to see you!”

He was planning to break up with her and had worried for days over this moment.

Thus, he committed a parapraxis, “an action in which one’s conscious intention is not fully carried out, … thought to be generally due to a conflicting unconscious intention.”

The definition is from “Parapraxis” is not in my little dictionary (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, 1983).

Another definition in the same source: “A minor error, such as a slip of the tongue, thought to reveal a repressed motive.”

A confession from your columnist: I’d never heard the word “parapraxis” until I sat down to write this piece.

I was planning to write about the Freudian slip.

You know, like when a female asks a male, “What would you like with your salad?” and the male replies, “Bed and butter.”

But in my research I learned quickly that the Freudian slip has an official name. Say it with me: Parapraxis. And it usually has more to do with evoking a chuckle than with psychoanalysis.

From Wikipedia:

“Slips of the tongue and the pen are the classic parapraxes, but psychoanalytic theory also embraces such phenomena as misreadings, mishearings, temporary forgettings, and the mislaying and losing of objects.

“In general use, the term ‘Freudian slip’ has been debased to refer to any accidental verbal slips of the tongue. Thus many examples are found in explanations and dictionaries which do not strictly fit the psychoanalytic definition.”


Well, I’m in it now. We might as well find out how parapraxis got its name.

Sigmund Freud’s writings noted many seemingly trivial errors that occur among us human beings. In 1925 he wrote:

“In the same way that psychoanalysis makes use of dream interpretation, it also profits by the study of the numerous little slips and mistakes …. I have pointed out that these phenomena are not accidental, that they require more than physiological explanations, that they have a meaning and can be interpreted, and that one is justified in inferring from them the presence of restrained or repressed intentions.”

Freud referred to these phenomena as a Fehlleistungen (German for “faulty actions” or “misperformances”).

Freud’s English interpreter chose the Greek term parapraxes, which means “other actions.”

Notwithstanding the learned tone of the word “parapraxis, when Freud’s work was translated, the term Freudian slip was bound to catch on, no?

And, Freud being Freud, his “slip” came to be applied to any misstatement, usually by someone wanting to humorously assign a hidden sexual motive to the mistake.

This resulted in a “dilution of the original technical meaning,” as people bandied the word “Freudian” about in contexts where there was no essential connection with any genuine psychoanalytic concept.


Now, what was the question?

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at