Classics in the Historyof Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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Psychopathology of Everyday Life

  Sigmund Freud (1901)
Translation by A. A. Brill (1914)


Mistakes in Reading and Writing

That the same view-points and observation should hold true for mistakesin reading and writing as for lapses in speech is not at all surprisingwhen one remembers the inner relation of these functions. I shall hereconfine myself to the reports of several carefully analysed examples andshall make no attempt to include all of the phenomena.


(a) While looking over a number of the Leipziger Illustrierten,which I was holding obliquely, I read as the title of the front-page picture,"A Wedding Celebration in the Odyssey." Astonished and with my attentionaroused, I moved the page into the proper position only to read correctly,"A Wedding Celebration in the Ostsee (Baltic Sea)." How did this senselessmistake in reading come about?

Immediately my thoughts turned to a book by Ruth, Experimental Investigationsof "Music Phantoms," etc., with which I had recently been [p.118] much occupied, as it closely touched the psychologic problems thatare of interest to me. The author promised a work in the near future tobe called Analysis and Principles of Dream Phenomena. No wonderthat I, having just published an Interpretation of Dreams, awaitedthe appearance of this book with the most intense interest. In Ruth's workconcerning music phantoms I found an announcement in the beginning of thetable of contents of the detailed inductive proof that the old Hellenicmyths and traditions originated mainly from slumber and music phantoms,from dream phenomena and from deliria. Thereupon I had immediately plungedinto the text in order to find out whether he was also aware that the scenewhere Odysseus appears before Nausicaa was based upon the common dreamof nakedness. One of my friends called my attention to the clever passagein G. Keller's Grünem Heinrich, which explains this episodein the Odyssey as an objective representation of the dream of the marinerstraying far from home. I added to it the reference to the exhibition dreamof nakedness.[1]

(b) A woman who is very anxious to get children always readsstorks instead of stocks.

(c) One day I received a letter which contained very disturbingnews. I immediately called my wife and informed her that poor Mrs. [p.119] Wm. H. was seriously ill and was given up by the doctors. There musthave been a false ring to the words in which I expressed my sympathy, asmy wife grew suspicious, asked to see the letter, and expressed her opinionthat it could not read as stated by me, because no one calls the wife bythe husband's name. Moreover, the correspondent was well acquainted withthe Christian name of the woman concerned. I defended my assertion obstinatelyand referred to the customary visiting-cards, on which a woman designatesherself by the Christian name of her husband. I was finally compelled totake up the letter, and, as a matter of fact, we read therein "Poor W.M." What is more, I had even overlooked "Poor Dr. W. M." My mistake inreading signified a spasmodic effort, so to speak, to turn the sad newsfrom the man towards the woman. The title between the adjective and thename did not go well with my claim that the woman must have been meant.That is why it was omitted in the reading. The motive for this falsifyingwas not that the woman was less an object of my sympathy than the man,but the fate of this poor man had excited my fears regarding another andnearer person who, I was aware, had the same disease.

(d) Both irritating and laughable is a lapse in reading to whichI am frequently subject when I walk through the streets of a strange cityduring [p. 120] my vacation. I then read antiquities on every shopsign that shows the slightest resemblance to the word; this displays thequesting spirit of the collector.

(e) In his important work[2] Bleuler relates:"While reading I once had the intellectual feeling of seeing my name twolines below. To my astonishment I found only the words blood corpuscles.Of the many thousands of lapses in reading in the peripheral as well asin the central field of vision that I have analysed, this was the moststriking case. Whenever I imagined that I saw my name, the word that inducedthis illusion usually showed a greater resemblance to my name than theword bloodcorpuscles. In most cases all the letters of my name hadto be close together before I could commit such an error. In this case,however, I could readily explain the delusion of reference and the illusion.What I had just read was the end of a statement concerning a form of badstyle in scientific works, a tendency from which I am not entirely free."


(a) On a sheet of paper containing principally short daily notesof business interest, I found, to my surprise, the incorrect date, "Thursday,[p. 121] October 20th," bracketed under the correct date of the month ofSeptember. It was not difficult to explain this anticipation as the expressionof a wish. A few days before I had returned fresh from my vacation andfelt ready for any amount of professional work, but as yet there were fewpatients. On my arrival I had found a letter from a patient announcingher arrival on the 20th of October. As I wrote the same date in SeptemberI may certainly have thought "X. ought to be here already; what a pityabout that whole month!" and with this thought I pushed the current datea month ahead. In this case the disturbing thought can scarcely be calledunpleasant; therefore after noticing this lapse in writing, I immediatelyknew the solution. In the fall of the following year I experienced an entirelyanalogous and similarly motivated lapse in writing. E. Jones has made astudy of similar cases, and found that most mistakes in writing dates aremotivated.

(b) I received the proof sheets of my contribution to the annualreport on neurology and psychiatry, and I was naturally obliged to reviewwith special care the names of authors, which, because of the many differentnationalities represented, offer the greatest difficulties to the compositor.As a matter of fact, I found some strange-sounding names still in needof correction; but, oddly enough, the compositor had [p. 122] correctedone single name in my manuscript, and with very good reason. I had writtenBuckrhard, which the compositor guessed to be Burckhard.I had praised the treatise of this obstetrician entitled The Influenceof Birth on the Origin of Infantile Paralysis, and I was not consciousof the least enmity toward him. But an author in Vienna, who had angeredme by an adverse criticism of my Traumdeutung, bears the same name.It was as if in writing the name Burckhard, meaning the obstetrician, awicked thought concerning the other B. had obtruded itself. The twistingof the name, as I have already stated in regard to lapses in speech, oftensignifies a depreciation.[3]

(c) The following is seemingly a serious case of lapsus calami,which it would be equally correct to describe as an erroneously carriedout action. I intended to withdraw from the postal savings bank the sumof 300 crowns, which I wished to send to an absent relative to enable himto take treatment at a watering-place. I noted that my account was 4,380crowns, and I decided to bring it down to the round sum of 4,000 crowns,[p. 123] which was not to be touched in the near future. After making outthe regular cheque I suddenly noticed that I had written not 380 crowns,as I had intended, but exactly 438 crowns. I was frightened at the untrustworthinessof my action. I soon realized that my fear was groundless, as I had notgrown poorer than I was before. But I had to reflect for quite a whilein order to discover what influence diverted me from my first intentionwithout making itself known to my consciousness.

First I got on a wrong track: I subtracted 380 from 438, but after thatI did not know what to do with the difference. Finally an idea occurredto me which showed me the true connection. 438 is exactly 10 per cent.of the entire account of 4,380 crowns! But the bookseller, too, gives a10 per cent. discount! I recalled that a few days before I had selectedseveral books, in which I was no longer interested, in order to offer themto the bookseller for 300 crowns. He thought the price demanded too high,but promised to give me a final answer within the next few days. If heshould accept my first offer he would replace the exact sum that I wasto spend on the sufferer. There is no doubt that I was sorry about thisexpenditure. The emotion at the realization of my mistakes can be moreeasily understood as a fear of growing poor through such outlays. But both[p. 124] the sorrow over this expense and the fear of poverty connectedwith it were entirely foreign to my consciousness; I did not regret thisexpense when I promised the sum, and would have laughed at the idea ofany such underlying motive. I should probably not have assigned such feelingsto myself had not my psychoanalytic practice made me quite familiar withthe repressed elements of psychic life, and if I had not had a dream afew days before which brought forth the same solution.

(d) Although it is usually difficult to find the person responsiblefor printers' errors, the psychologic mechanisms underlying them are thesame as in other mistakes. Typographical errors also well demonstrate thefact that people are not at all indifferent to such trivialities as "mistakes,"and, judging by the indignant reactions of the parties concerned, one isforced to the conclusion that mistakes are not treated by the public atlarge as mere accidents. This state of affairs is very well summed up inthe following editorial from the New York Times of April 14, 1913.Not the least interesting are the comments of the keen-witted editor, whoseems to share our views: --


"Typographical errors come only too frequently from even the best-regulatednewspaper [p. 125] presses. They are always humiliating, often a causeof anger, and occasionally dangerous, but now and then they are distinctlyamusing. This latter quality they are most apt to have when they are madein the office of a journalistic neighbour, a fact that probably explainswhy we can read with smiling composure an elaborate editorial apology whichappears in the Hartford Courant.

"Its able political commentator tried the other day to say that, unfortunatelyfor Connecticut, 'J. H. is no longer a Member of Congress. Printerand proof-reader combined to deprive the adverb of its negative particle.'At least, the able political commentator so declares, and we wouldn't questionhis veracity for the world; but sorrowful experience has taught most ofus that it's safer to get that sort of editorial disclaimer of responsibilityinto print before looking up the copy, and perhaps -- just perhaps -- theworld-enlightener, who knows that he wrote unfortunate, becausethat is what he intended to write, didn't rashly chance the discovery ofhis own guilt before he convicted the composing-room of it.

"Be that as it may, the meaning of the sentence was cruelly changed,and a friend was grieved or offended. Not so long ago a more astonishingerror than this one crept into a book review of ours -- a very solemn andscientific [p. 126] book. It consisted of the substitution of the word'caribou' for the word 'carbon' in a paragraph dealing with the chemicalcomposition of the stars. In that case the writer's fierce self-exculpationis at least highly plausible, as it seems hardly possible that he wrote'caribou' when he intended to write 'carbon,' but even he was cautiousenough to make no deep inquiry into the matter."

(e) I cite the following case contributed by Dr. W. Stekel, forthe authenticity of which I can vouch: "An almost unbelievable exampleof miswriting and misreading occurred in the editing of a widely circulatedweekly. It concerned an article of defence and vindication which was writtenwith much warmth and great pathos. The editor-in-chief of the paper readthe article, while the author himself naturally read it from the manuscriptand proof-sheets more than once. Everybody was satisfied, when the printer'sreader suddenly noticed a slight error which had escaped the attentionof all. There it was, plainly enough: 'Our readers will bear witness tothe fact that we have always acted in a selfish manner for the goodof the community.' It is quite evident that it was meant to read unselfish.The real thoughts, however, broke through the pathetic speech with elementalforce."

[p. 127] (f) The following example of misprinting is taken froma Western gazette: The teacher was giving an instruction paper on mathematicalmethods, and spoke of a plan "for the instruction of youth that might becarried out ad libidinem."

(g) Even the Bible did not escape misprints. Thus we have the"Wicked Bible," so called from the fact that the negative was left outof the seventh commandment. This authorized edition of the Bible was publishedin London in 1631, and it is said that the printer had to pay a fine oftwo thousand pounds for the omission.

Another biblical misprint dates back to the year 1580, and is foundin the Bible of the famous library of Wolfenbuttel, in Hesse. In the passagein Genesis where God tells Eve that Adam shall be her master and shallrule over her, the German translation is "Und er soll dein Herr sein."The word Herr (master) was substituted by Narr, which meansfool. Newly discovered evidence seems to show that the error was a consciousmachination of the printer's suffragette wife, who refused to be ruledby her husband.

(h) Dr. Ernest Jones reports the following case concerning A.A. Brill: "Although by custom almost a teetotaler, he yielded to a friend'simportunity one evening, in order to avoid offending him, and took a littlewine. During the next morning an exacerbation of an eye-strain headachegave him cause to regret [p. 128] this slight indulgence, and his reflectionon the subject found expression in the following slip of the pen. Havingoccasion to write the name of a girl mentioned by a patient, he wrote notEthel but Ethyl.[4] It happened that the girl in questionwas rather too fond of drink, and in Dr. Brill's mood at the time thischaracteristic of hers stood out with conspicuous significance."[5]

(i) A woman wrote to her sister, felicitating her on the occasionof taking possession of a new and spacious residence. A friend who waspresent noticed that the writer put the wrong address on the letter, andwhat was still more remarkable was the fact that she did not address itto the previous residence, but to one long ago given up, but which hersister had occupied when she first married. When the friend called herattention to it the writer remarked, "You are right; but what in the worldmade me do this?" to which her friend replied: "Perhaps you begrudge herthe nice big apartment into which she has just moved because you yourselfare cramped for space, and for that reason you put her back into her firstresidence, where she was no better off than yourself." "Of course I begrudgeher the new apartment," she honestly admitted. As an afterthought she added,"It is a pity that one is so mean in such matters."

[p. 129] (k) Ernest Jones reports the following example givento him by Dr. A. A. Brill. In a letter to Dr. Brill a patient tried toattribute his nervousness to business worries and excitement during thecotton crisis. He went on to say: "My trouble is all due to that d -- frigidwave; there isn't even any seed to be obtained for new crops." He referredto a cold wave which had destroyed the cotton crops, but instead of writing"wave" he wrote "wife." In the bottom of his heart he entertained reproachesagainst his wife on account of her marital frigidity and childlessness,and he was not far from the cognition that the enforced abstinence playedno little part in the causation of his malady.

Omissions in writing are naturally explained in the same manner as mistakesin writing. A remarkable example of omission which is of historic importancewas reported by Dr. B. Dattner.[6] In one of the legalarticles dealing with the financial obligations of both countries, whichwas drawn up in the year 1867 during the readjustment between Austria andHungary, the word "effective" was accidentally omitted in the Hungariantranslation. Dattner thinks it probable that the unconscious desire ofthe Hungarian law-makers to grant Austria the least possible advantageshad something to do with this omission.

[p. 130] Another example of omission is the following related by Brill:"A prospective patient, who had corresponded with me relative to treatment,finally wrote for an appointment for a certain day. Instead of keepinghis appointment he sent regrets which began as follows: 'Owing to foreseencircumstances I am unable to keep my appointment.' He naturally meant towrite unforeseen. He finally came to me months later, and in thecourse of the analysis I discovered that my suspicions at the time werejustified; there were no unforeseen circumstances to prevent his comingat that time; he was advised not to come to me. The unconscious does notlie."

Wundt gives a most noteworthy proof for the easily ascertained factthat we more easily make mistakes in writing than in speaking (loc.cit., p. 374). He states: "In the course of normal conversationthe inhibiting function of the will is constantly directed toward bringinginto harmony the course of ideation with the movement of articulation.If the articulation following the ideas becomes retarded through mechanicalcauses, as in writing, such anticipations then readily make their appearance."

Observation of the determinants which favour lapses in reading givesrise to doubt, which I do not like to leave unmentioned, because I am ofthe opinion that it may become the start- [p. 131] ing-point of a fruitfulinvestigation. It is a familiar fact that in reading aloud the attentionof the reader often wanders from the text and is directed toward his ownthoughts. The results of this deviation of attention are often such thatwhen interrupted and questioned he cannot even state what he had read.In other words, he has read automatically, although the reading was nearlyalways correct. I do not think that such conditions favour any noticeableincrease in the mistakes. We are accustomed to assume concerning a wholeseries of functions that they are most precisely performed when done automatically,with scarcely any conscious attention. This argues that the conditionsgoverning attention in mistakes in speaking, writing, and reading mustbe differently determined than assumed by Wundt (cessation or diminutionof attention). The examples which we have subjected to analysis have reallynot given us the right to take for granted a quantitative diminution ofattention. We found what is probably not exactly the same thing, a disturbanceof the attention through a strange obtruding thought.


[1] The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 208.

[2] Bleuler, Affektivität Suggestibilität,Paranoia, p. 121, Halle. Marhold, 1906.

[3] A similar situation occurs in Julius Cæsar,iii. 3:
"CINNA. Truly, my name is Cinna.
"BURGHER. Tear him to pieces! he is a conspirator.
"CINNA. I am Cinna the poet! not Cinna the conspirator.
"BURGHER. No matter; his name is Cinna; tear the name out of his heartand let him go."

[4] Ethyl alcohol is, of course, the chemical namefor ordinary alcohol.

[5] Jones, Psycho-analysis, p. 66.

[6] Zentralbl. f. Psychoanalyse,i. 12.