Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

His "Biological Cock": On Three Decades of Collecting Freudian Slips (Part 6 of 7)

Therapy clients can unintentionally use language in truly ingenious ways.

Linguistic Creativity

 Most of the word coinages, hybrid words, and novel expressions in this section were uttered without any client awareness that their vocalizations were quick-witted or clever. Call it, then, the unmediated brilliance of the subconscious. Their ingenious neologisms included such unheralded additions to our lexicon as "headroad," "revelationary," "compliable," "lifewise," "whelmed," "decommiting," "standmate," "glim," "flauntly," "screamathon"--and (ahem) "shituation," a fresh, R-rated version of the familiar word that singularly describes a really bad circumstance.

As opposed to the verbal screw-ups featured in Part 3 of this post, each of these newly minted locutions--though not consciously designed to break new semantic ground--seamlessly combines two separate words, each of which contributes to a final meaning more precise than either could independently (something like the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.) On the contrary, most of the verbal mishaps enumerated earlier are (at least before careful translation) completely meaningless-as in "picnicking over small things."

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In addition to discussing my clients' intriguingly innovative use of words that don't really exist, this segment will also review certain phrases--or even entire sentences--they unintentionally created to illustrate their thoughts and feelings. In context, I found their originative language as impactful as it was surprising (and typically humorous as well).

But let's start with the word coinages that, however unconsciously, were (to me at least) almost ideally contrived to convey the deeper reality of what my clients wanted to share.

• "We've made a lot of headroads in our relationship." This vocalization paired the word "headway"--meaning "progress, improvement, or progression"--with the word "inroad"-here denoting "penetration or advancement." Technically, the client made a mistake. But it really doesn't feel like a mistake, for the coinage succeeds, I think, in projecting--and in an usually picturesque way--the client's intended meaning.

• "My insights [when I was] in Nicotine Anonymous were revelationary." Unawares, the client paired the words "revelation" (meaning "inspiring" or "apocalyptic") and "revolutionary" ("advanced"; "radical"; "reformist") to convey his life-altering 12-Step experience. However unconsciously, his uniting these two words into a striking neologism yielded a much richer, stronger, more descriptive term than either of these two already existing words could have individually

• "As a child, I was very compliable." This coinage adeptly joins the words "compliant" and "pliable"--and represents a particularly notable example of a client's ability to say more than, consciously, they can appreciate (and regardless of whether their slip is "Freudian" or not). To the extent that a new linguistic entity (such as "compliable") is heard as simultaneously communicating the meaning of both "compliant" and "pliable," such a synthetic word is clearly perceptible as richer in meaning than either descriptor would be alone.

• "Although I can't say that my depression isn't still there, lifewise things really do seem to be changing." With this coinage we witness the creation of a whole new colloquialism, which at the same time creatively reduces an entire phrase--"my life in general"--to a single word capturing the same idea (but more emphatically).

• "I'm feeling whelmed." This is how one client responded to my opening question of how he'd been doing since our last session. I couldn't help but be impressed by his verbal ingenuity in finding--or rather, creating--just the right word to describe his coping with daily stressors (i.e., without coming unglued). By "whelmed" he clearly meant to convey that though he wasn't underwhelmed by all he had to do, he wasn't overwhelmed either. Rather, the temperature of his "stress porridge" was just about right. (Consider, by contrast, another one of my clients, who came in one day totally stressed out--declaring himself "over-friggin'-whelmed"!)

• "I'm really beginning now to think about decommiting from the relationship." Now here's a word that absolutely deserves a place in the dictionary. After all, "recommitting" already is--why not "decommitting," too? This line came from a client who had recently recommitted to his wife after telling her earlier that he wanted a divorce. But things still weren't working out. So at the time of his utterance he was thinking about reversing his recommitment. (Should he maybe have said "re-decommitting"?!)

• "We have a standmate." This was a woman talking about her marriage--and unconsciously fusing the words "standoff" and "stalemate." Somehow, this coinage prompted me to visualize husband and wife--"mates," after all--confronting each other in an upright position (and perhaps also glaring into one another's eyes), with neither willing to give the other the slightest ground.

• "The situation is pretty glim." Another one of my favorites (cf. "compliable"). At the time it seemed a perfect pairing of "glum" with "grim"--exactly depicting not only the situation but my client's feelings toward it as well. (It's also, to me, an excellent example of the creative powers of the subconscious, since I doubt that this client could have intentionally devised such a neologism.)

• "She really dresses flauntly." I believe that what this male client meant to characterize here was both the flirtatiousness of the woman's seductive dress and her "come hither" demeanor. Even though the words "flaunt" and "flirtatious" don't really echo each other, somehow in this particular verbal construction it would seem they're (however unconsciously) being joined.

• "It was a real screamathon!" Or, literally, a veritable marathon of screaming. I could hardly have been more impressed by this client's verbal inventiveness in depicting the competitive, contest-like nature of the protracted fight she'd just had with her husband. (And this neologism was clearly generated consciously!)

• "Shituation" I never recorded the actual sentence in which this intriguing coinage occurred. But I did note at the time that the client was referring to an especially distasteful circumstance he was obliged to deal with. Through accidentally amending the word "situation" by a single consonant, he succeeded in colorfully characterizing exactly how he experienced the situation (!).

creativity The following examples of linguistic creativity focus on originative phrases--or even complete sentences--that highlight their speakers' point in remarkably inventive ways.

• "I'm just trying to bide my tongue." Here we have an exceptionally fertile pairing of "bide my time" with "bite my tongue." Unconsciously, the client seemed to want to underscore the point that after much reflection she'd decided not to press the issue bothering her with her husband--at least not now. And the two expressions seem to complement one another especially well . . . and so (serendipitously?) she condensed them into one (!)

• "Either I wasn't good enough, or if I was good enough at something--but in a way that showed my father up--then I wasn't good enough either." I can't imagine anyone expressing more poignantly the hopelessness of trying to please a father who simply wasn't "pleasable" (okay, that's not really a word either, but--). In terms of paradoxically wording the despair this client experienced in growing up trying to earn his withholding father's acceptance and approval, it's hard to imagine any other wording that would so powerfully capture his immense sense of futility.

• "I don't want to-I need to-and I don't want to need to!" The client here was expressing her relationship difficulties, realizing that her neediness was making her behave in ways she herself disapproved of--and were also detrimental to the relationship. In amazingly few words she was able to make her point as simply, as eloquently, as anything I could have imagined. Although she seemed totally unaware of what, to me, seemed almost poetic, I was nonetheless "blown away" by what I can only call her "innocent exactitude."

• "Do you have any idea how much I don't ask of you?!" By its compelling simplicity, this one also "floored" me (hmm, "blown away" . . . and "floored"--will my fascination with the endless peculiarities and intricacies of language never cease?). This particular client, almost in desperation, was pleading with her husband to recognize that over the years she'd "backed off" from requesting things of him far more than he was willing to acknowledge. In several sessions, he had continued to complain about her dependence as though she hadn't made any of the major changes that she had in fact achieved. Marshalling her evidence, she then proceeded to pull some papers out of her purse and read to him a long list of things that over time she'd begun to handle on her own. Which left him literally speechless . . . and me extremely impressed by her unanticipated presentation. (I myself could hardly have been as persuasive in prompting him to update his negatively skewed image of her.)

Note 1: Earlier sections of this seven-part post included "Introduction," "Most Memorable Freudian Slips," Verbal Screw-Ups and Forms of Words Never Heard Before," "Idiomatic Screw-Ups," and "Unconscious Hilarity." Part 7, the final segment (and my personal favorite), is "Unexpected Client Wit." Hopefully, each of these parts will afford you some of the "innocent pleasure" I myself have enjoyed in being privy to them.

Note 2: I  invite all readers to follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

 

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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