The psychoanalysis of spelling

The only purpose of spelling is to communicate. ‘Bad’ spelling communicates too, but it gives out a message we don’t want. Or perhaps it gives out a message we do want. So what do we really want? The Spice Girls said they knew, but our answer to this question depends on what we think ‘really’ – and ‘what’ and ‘want’ too – means.

The point about psychoanalysis is to say things that are simple, important and true. The help comes from the truth. Psychoanalysis is a misleadingly technical word for a simple but powerful belief in humanity: we need to love and be loved, and what we feel is important. In my view this is different from philosophy – psychoanalysis is not a cryptic crossword of brilliant linguistic cleverness. Psychoanalytic theory gets difficult, but theory is for the professionals, not the people who need it.

Why do people misunderstand psychoanalysis? Practitioners would say the misunderstanding is a projection more about the imaginer than the object of their imagining. Many dozens (hundreds?) of sessions may indeed be spent working through the patient’s imaginings about psychoanalysis and the analyst. Understanding these projections reveals habits and distortions of reality we take as normal but which are in fact patterns of mind that may (or may not) be unhelpful.

8/10. Penguin’s cover for its 2002 retranslation. Dark, mysterious, clever and slightly kinky – a nearly perfect commercial representation of the contents. The only flaw: the title is stiffly corralled away at the bottom.

Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was an early Penguin and a brilliant example of Allen Lane’s publishing project: critical intelligence burning with pleasurable curiosity about the complexities of our humanity. The richness of Lane’s conception has been adding massive value to his company’s brand for 77 years. The premise of Freud’s book is that errors and accidents – popularly known as ‘Freudian slips’ – are expressive of the unconscious. If we can understand the patterns of our unconscious responses we can then predict and prevent behaviours that are not helpful to us. Please note ‘understanding’ here is not just rationality, cerebration or ‘cleverness’, but emotional catharsis, connection and greater fullness of life that leads to a partial freedom (using Marx’s words in a very different context) of the recognition of necessity.

So how does spelling reflect the workings of our unconscious mind?

A quick trawl through a helpful Oxford University Press list of common spelling errors suggests most are confusions of doubled letters, such as accommodation versus accumulation or commemoration. I don’t see any specifically Freudian slips here, perhaps because most of these are instances of rules and logic gone wrong, not mistakes. The emotional content of these kinds of errors is a child’s panic over rules, which seem remote and external, not helpful or expressive – perhaps even threatening. Is there an echo of a parental voice here? Where is the kindness and patience of a loving parent, as they help the child build a bridge between their inner world and the world of the reality principle? In extreme but all-too common cases of illiteracy, a sense of failure in reading and writing creates a post hoc rationalizing and anti-authoritarian defensive reaction; the socialization process of literacy goes into reverse. Just in case anyone thinks spelling is just academic, the inspiring Shannon Trust quotes Prison Reform Trust research (2008) about illiteracy levels in UK prisons: ‘48% of the prison population have a reading ability below that expected of an 11-year-old.’ I am not saying ‘bad’ spelling causes criminality; I am saying it is part of a range of behaviours that eloquently express how someone feels about their world. Interestingly the Shannon Trust literacy materials are taught by fellow prisoners, not the authorities; where teaching literacy is expressive of a struggle over deeper-lying power relations there will be no agreement to learn.

What about ‘correct’ spelling obsessives? Wilhelm Reich writes about the fascistic character-armoured personality type in the The Mass Psychology of Fascism: too much concern for systems, consistency and rules is an attempt to drive away anxiety. It displays, in Reich’s controversial view, a fear of sexuality. David Crystal (‘The fight for English’) calmly and helpfully argues rules don’t matter, communication does; he gives the example of the perfectly reasonable but hyperapostrophic do’s and don’t’s. Dos and don’ts looks weird. The Raspberry Pi is a cheap (in a good way) back-to-basics computer that teaches the joys of programming. The press release about it wisely uses the plural form Raspberry Pi’s. My nearest football team, Cambridge United, are called the U’s. Should the local newspaper column about them really be called News of the Us?

A subeditor with a sense of humour – please note the dateline is 1 April.

Here are a few spelling problems with more of a classically Freudian subtext.

Seperate clearly displays separation anxiety. If I put this in adult language and in terms of adult feeling, I say a child fears the loss of their mother. No big deal, apparently. If you can try to imagine the perceptual world of a foetus, however, ‘child’ and ‘mother’ have no useful meaning; Melanie Klein plausibly imagines breast to a baby as a world, even something no different from the baby himself. Here we should not underestimate the child’s terror of separation: the emotional state of people who spell like this has become confused with desperate.

Homogenous is a word meaning ‘having the same origin’, but most people who use it really mean homogeneous, ‘composed of parts or elements that are all of the same kind’. This confusion is the rule rather than the exception and can only, as far I can work out, come from a homophobic anxiety about homo-genius, that it is brilliant to be gay. Its antonym heterogeneous is usually spelled OK, however, presumably because heterogenous rings more obviously as a Freudian slip with erogenous.

Pubishing: this is surprisingly common. In the orthographic badlands of the internet, the exact-match search for “pubishing” gets 94,000 hits, including the magnificently oblivious Glassdoor site for Pubishing Technology – well worth checking out for 15 Freudian slips on one page. This, however, is a jewel from my printed collection:

From the meticulous and fastidious Jan Tschichold’s (1902–74) otherwise magisterial The Form of the Book. If he had been alive in 1991 I would feel sorry for the production editor …

The Printers’ Devil was a Renaissance metaphor for exactly the same kind of behaviour that Freud had explained within his secular materialist and scientistic paradigm. It attempts to account for shocking and embarrassing typesetting errors. There is a wonderfully long list of rogue editions of the Bible in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. For example, the Printers Bible is an ‘edition of about 1702 which makes David pathetically complain that “printers [princes] have persecuted me without a cause” (Psalm 109:161).’ Or there is the Lions Bible, a ‘Bible issued in 1804 contain[ing] a great number of printers’ errors …: Numbers 35:18, “The murderer shall surely be put together” instead of “to death”; 1 Kings 8:19, “but thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions” instead of “loins”; Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh lusteth after the Spirit” instead of “against the Spirit”.’

The so-called Wicked Bible is perhaps the best-known example, and Exodus 20:14 is the reason for its name:

From Robert Barker’s 1631 edition. The 1,000 printed copies were quickly suppressed but some copies still survive. Barker was fined the enormous sum of £300 and sent to debtors’ prison. Image from

Earlier still, the (minor league) devil Titivillus described himself, at least according to the fifteenth-century Myroure of Oure Ladye, as ‘a poure dyuel, and my name ys Tytyvyllus … I muste eche day … brynge my master [i.e. Lucifer] a thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes.’ His mediaeval spelling also very helpfully reminds us there was a broader conception of spelling accuracy before mechanized and industrial-scale production of texts made any kind of fixity possible. No surprise here; clock time and the pitch of musical instruments were not standardized until the coming of the railways made it obvious that regions were all different from each other. In other words, ‘correct’ spelling is only a by-product of certain kinds of technologies; manuscript (‘writing by hand’) production favoured greater latitude in permissible spellings than machine production. As digital many-to-many multinodal modes of production and distribution supersede the Fordist one-to-many mass-production paradigm, we may expect increasing individualizations and micro-groupings of cultural and spelling conventions – a global village and an information implosion, as Marshall McLuhan suggested even before the internet was invented.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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2 Responses to The psychoanalysis of spelling

  1. I am wondering whether spell-checkers need shrinks. I once wrote an article about teaching the Bible as literature and The Catholic Herald’s spell-checker changed all my uses of ‘pericopes’ to ‘periscopes’ (of which there are not so many in the New Testament).

    • Propagandum says:

      Ha! I wonder if the Episcopal Church would have understood? I’m pretty sure US spell-checking (and easy access to US style via the internet) is making UK spelling even more insecure – WordPress gets cross with my spelling quite regularly. And this probably goes the other way over the Atlantic sometimes too.

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