Freud’s Mistress

I stopped in at the library today and looked at the New Book display near the checkout desk. One of the novels caught my eye: Freud’s Mistress, by Karen Mack. Really? was my reaction. I knew that Carl Jung had a mistress – the famous Toni Wolff – but I’d never heard that Sigmund Freud was given to extramarital escapades.

The woman was Minna Bernays, Freud’s sister-in-law, and evidence suggests that the love affair really did happen. I scanned the dust jacket and then put the book back on the display shelf – I’m too busy to even think about reading it right now.

But not too busy to notice an error on the aforementioned dust jacket. Or what some people (including me) consider an error, though others might disagree.

Here’s what I read. Can you spot the problem word?from the dust jacket

Give up? Poor Martha had an uninterested husband (Sigmund), not a disinterested one.

Disinterested means impartial or fair. “Interest” in this usage means an investment, as in “He owned an interest in the production company.”

“Who cares?” you might be thinking. “What’s the difference?”

If that’s your reaction, you have plenty of company. But my view is that there’s indeed a problem. If the two words (uninterested and disinterested) mean exactly the same thing, we’ve lost a useful word from the language.

English – as Shaw and some other great writers have noted – has a limited supply of synonyms. If you’re trying to avoid repeating yourself, you soon find yourself running out of words.

If I’m writing about an “impartial” panel, it’s useful to be able to write disinterested once or twice so that I don’t have to keep using impartial.

Right now the English language is on the brink of losing several useful words for the same reason: The distinctions are on their way to being forgotten.

Do you use infer and imply interchangeably? You shouldn’t. “Infer” is properly a Sherlock-Holmes action – using your brains to figure something out. “Imply” means hint.

He inferred from the spreadsheet that Winsten had been lying about the data.  CORRECT

Joan implied that she didn’t want another date with Roy.  CORRECT

Let’s look at another one: What are leotards? It’s the plural for a one-piece body suit worn by a dancer. If you’re describing a woman who’s also wearing thin, stretchy leg coverings, you should say that she’s wearing “a leotard and tights.”

Ready for one more? Do you know the difference between unique and unusual?

“Unique” means one-of-a-kind. My fingerprints are unique, but they’re not unusual. (So are yours.)

Sigmund Freud

If you inferred from this post that I favor conserving the unique meanings of words, you are correct! You might also have inferred (since I’m sitting at a computer right now) that I’m not wearing a leotard and tights.

And you would be correct.


Leave a Reply