Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean by Michael Erard




(Mildly Recommended)




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Michael Erard presents a case in his new book, Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, that disfluency is normal. He goes on to describe thirty different types of verbal blunders and illustrates and analyzes them. Unlike the engaging Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Um is a bit on the boring side. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, “The Life and Times of the Freudian Slip,” pp. 28-32:


With its broad boulevards and monumental buildings, Vienna did not seem to be a city where small events like slips of the tongue would be noticed. But at the close of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth, slips, gaffes, and lapses found a special home in the city's collective mind. Sophisticated, decadent, and vibrant, Vienna, a city of 1.6 million people, was the capital of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, which struggled to consolidate its power. The vastness of the empire, its mix of ethnicities and languages, and the absence of a single national identity put many people who spoke distinct languages in contact and made the Viennese highly attuned to subtle spoken cues. They noted the various German dialects, whether the nasal language of the high nobility, the slightly idiomatic German spoken by the emperor, army officers, civil servants, and the intelligentsia, or the street slang of salesgirls. They listened for the fractured German of assimilated immigrants. Vienna was also home to an emotionally restrained, socially disciplined, middle class. Despite the public propriety, the city's intellectuals (such as Sigmund Freud and Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, who studied sexual deviance) pioneered the study of sexuality, and Vienna was proud of its cabarets and prostitutes. Other con­tradictions, both intellectual and political, gave the place an atmosphere of secrecy and amorality. In 1990, Bruno Bettel­beim argued that only in Vienna could psychoanalysis have been born. It was "one of the major intellectual developments of a time when a pervasive awareness of political decline led Vienna's cultural elites to abandon politics as a subject to take seriously, to withdraw their attention from the wider world and inward," Bettelheim wrote.

Sigmund Freud began his career in Vienna in the 1880s, treating female patients suffering from hysteria. He worked with Josef Breuer, an older doctor, who taught Freud how to treat psychological problems by getting patients to talk about early memories and experiences and the emotions connected to them. Breuer called this the "cathartic method." Breuer's patient, Bertha Pappenheim, who was twenty-one years old when Breuer was first called to see her, named it the "talking cure" and "chimney sweeping." Working with Bertha and other patients, Freud and Breuer became aware of the importance symbolism in dreams. Freud started to write down his own. By 1896, he was writing down dreams and his interpretations of them as well as slips of the tongue, forgotten names, and misrememberings. All of these he took to be eruptions of the unconscious self's desires.

In 1901, Freud published The Psychopathology of Everyday -Life, placing his stamp on verbal blunders forever. Psy­chopathology (which was first an article, then a book, published in 1904) turned the marginalia of people's lives, including their speech errors, into spotlights on the unconscious self. With its mundane examples of conscious intentions gone awry, it became one of Freud's most popular books. In its early editions, it makes the Viennese look like an awkward people, prone to faltering and gaffing and as equally embarrassed by their lapses and faults. In later editions of the book, Freud added some of his encounters with strangers who approached him to talk about their slips, a more frequent situation once he and psychoanaly­sis became better known. Sometimes his fellow Viennese sub­mitted their slips to his scrutiny, as if he were a fortune-teller or an astrologer, not a doctor.

Freud never enjoyed the convenience of using the term "Freudian slip," and it's unlikely he ever met someone at a cos­tume party dressed in a negligee, a goatee, and a wink. Instead he wrote of Fehlleistung, or "faulty performance." For Freud, a verbal blunder was like a thread strung through a labyrinth. By following such threads, the psychoanalyst could uncover the lair where the monstrous intentions of the neurotic patient were imprisoned. Deep conflicts existed in the unconscious self, deeper than a person could know or reflect upon. The unconscious conveyed its own desires via verbal blunders.

The famous example of a Freudian slip, perhaps the text­book example, was the case of the forgotten aliquis. In Psy­chopathology, Freud recounted a conversation with a young man about the anti-Semitic prejudice they both faced. The young man tries to quote a line from Virgil in Latin: "Exoriare aliquis nostril ex ossibus ultor," which means, "May someone rise, an avenger, from my bones." In Virgil, the lines are spoken by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, enraged that the wandering adventurer Aeneas is about to leave her. But to Freud, the young man is expressing his hope for someone to punish people who discriminate against Jews.

But the young man misquotes the line. "Exoriare ex nostris ossibus ultor," he says. Freud noted the changes. He ignored the two words that the young man reversed (ex nostris for nostris ex), and focused instead on the dropped aliquis, eventually building a complicated interpretation to explain it.

Why did I do that? the young man asks Freud.

"We can get to the root of it at once," Freud tells him, "if you'll tell me everything that occurs to you when you con­centrate on the word you forgot." To Freud, the forgotten name, the omitted word, or the transposed sound all had the same source: they'd been cut off, intruded upon, rerouted, diverted, or blocked by a deeper, secret intention of the unconscious, a desire that the speaker was repressing. Freud called uncovering the desires of the unconscious "psychoanalysis," and he would try to make it a science. Others would call it overinterpretation, even charlatanism. Still others would call it an art, a sort of modern poetry of the soul.

The young man recognizes Freud, whom he knows as the founder of psychoanalysis, and he submits to an analysis on the fly. From aliquis, the young man thinks and says the word "liq­uid," then recalls a Catholic relic in a church, a vial of blood that belonged to St. Januarius, which liquefies only once a year, and how horrified the people of the parish feel when the lique­faction occurs too late.

Aha, says Freud. You're worried that your lover is pregnant. "How on earth did you guess that?" asks the astonished young man. (The assessment was accurate.)

"It's not so difficult," the older man replies, then walks the young man backward through the chain of associations he'd interpreted.

Now we use the term "Freudian slip" to label lapses that are salacious, obscene, or hostile—and whose impropriety is immediately evident. When you read in Psychopathology about the anatomy professor who replaced the word Versuche with the word Versuchungen and said to his class that "The study of the female genitals, despite many temptations, I beg your pardon, experiments," you almost expect him to tack on, "Well, I guess that's a Freudian slip there." He doesn't, of course. That's because he hadn't lived with Freudian slips as long as we have. By contrast, the case of the forgotten aliquis seems too subtle to be a Freudian slip. It is, however, a good illustration of how deeply Freud dug to get to personal truths. To him, any slip or gaffe, however seemingly innocuous, hid a secret intention that could be unburied through investigation.

Thanks to Erard and Um, we all can be comforted in knowing that to um is human. Those with a keen interest in communication will want to read Um and find out the rest of the story for all thirty types of blunders.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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