In 1890, in a letter to his friend, the physician Wilhelm Fliess, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856- 1939) listed numerous examples that he had noticed of a curious tendency by people to utter errors in speech, due perhaps to inattention, incomplete data, or a strong prior-response pattern. Freud wrote, “My hypothesis is that this displacement … is not left to arbitrary psychical choice …”
In his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud later referred to these errors in German as Fehlleistungen (faulty actions). He theorized that what we now call “Freudian slips” might represent the surfacing of an unconscious thought or wish; they were perhaps symptoms, he said, of the ongoing struggle between our conscious view of reality and those things we repress in our unconscious: they are verbal mistakes that reveal repressed beliefs. Freud’s English translator called them “parapraxes,” from the Greek meaning “another action.” Such slips of the tongue, or linguistic faux pas, were random expressions of unconscious processes in otherwise normal individuals.
For Freud, every little error contained potentiality, whether making a wrong turn while driving a car, dialing a wrong phone number, or misspelling an unfamiliar word. “In the same way that psychoanalysis makes use of dream interpretation,” he once said, “it also profits by the study of numerous little slips and mistakes which people make.” So is it possible that a Freudian slip is nothing more than a mistake or a lapse in concentration? After all, even Freud once told a student who asked him if there were an underlying psychological need to smoke a cigar: “Sometimes, a cigar … is just a cigar.”