What Is a Slip of the Tongue?

Learn More Through Examples and Observations

Definition and example of slip of the tongue

A slip of the tongue is a mistake in speaking, usually trivial, sometimes amusing. Also called lapsus linguae or tongue slip.

As British linguist David Crystal has noted, studies of tongue slips have revealed "a great deal about the neuropsychological processes that underlie speech."

Etymology: A translation of the Latin, lapsus linguae, cited by English poet and literary critic John Dryden in 1667.

Examples and Observations

The following example is from an article by Rowena Mason in The Guardian: "[British Prime Minister] David Cameron has accidentally described the 7 May election as 'career-defining' when he meant 'country-defining,' his third gaffe of recent days. His mistake on Friday was immediately jumped on by his opponents as unintentionally revealing that he was more concerned about his own job prospects than the future of the UK. It is likely that the prime minister will step down as Tory leader if he is voted out of Downing Street.
"'This is a real career-defining...country-defining election that we face in less than a week’s time,' he told an audience at the headquarters of Asda in Leeds."

This example comes from an article written by Marcella Bombardieri, which was published in The Boston Globe: "In an apparent slip of the tongue on the campaign trail yesterday, Mitt Romney mixed up the names of Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"The former Massachusetts governor was criticizing Democrats on foreign policy when he said, according to the Associated Press, 'Actually, just look at what Osam—Barack Obama—said just yesterday. Barack Obama, calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield.... It's almost as if the Democratic contenders for president are living in fantasyland....'
"Romney, who was speaking at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Greenwood, S.C., was referring to an audiotape broadcast Monday on Al Jazeera, purportedly of bin Laden, calling for insurgents in Iraq to unite. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden later explained: 'Governor Romney simply misspoke. He was referring to the recently released audiotape of Osama bin Laden and misspoke when referencing his name. It was just a brief mix-up.'"

Author Robert Louis Young shared the following quote by New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug (1920-1998) in his book, "Understanding Misunderstandings: "We need laws that protect everyone. Men and women, straights and gays, regardless of sexual perversion...ah, persuasion...."

Here's an example from an article written by Chris Suellentrop in Slate: "The Badger State boasts [John] Kerry's most famous slip of the tongue: the time he declared his love for 'Lambert Field,' suggesting that the state's beloved Green Bay Packers play their home games on the frozen tundra of the St. Louis airport."

Types of Slips of the Tongue

According to Jean Aitchinson, a professor of language and communications, "Normal speech contains a large number of such slips, though these mostly pass unnoticed. The errors fall into patterns, and it is possible to draw conclusions from them about the underlying mechanisms involved. They can be divided into (1) Selection errors, where a wrong item has been chosen, usually a lexical item, as with tomorrow instead of today in That's all for tomorrow. (2) Assemblage errors, where the correct items have been selected, but they have been assembled in the wrong order, as in holed and sealed for 'soled and healed.'"

Causes of Slips of the Tongue

British linguist George Yule says, "Most everyday slips of the tongue...are often simply the result of a sound being carried over from one word to the next, as in black bloxes (for 'black boxes'), or a sound used in one word in anticipation of its occurrence in the next word, as in noman numeral (for 'roman numeral'), or a tup of tea ('cup'), or the most highly played player ('paid'). The last example is close to the reversal type of slip, illustrated by shu flots, which may not make you beel fetter if you're suffering from a stick neff, and it's always better to loop before you leak. The last two examples involve the interchange of word-final sounds and are much less common than word-initial slips."

Predicting Slips of the Tongue

"[I]t is possible to make predictions about the form tongue slips are likely to take when they occur. Given the intended sentence 'The car missed the bike / but hit the wall' (where / marks an intonation/rhythm boundary, and the strongly stressed words are italicized), the likely slips are going to include bar for car or wit for hit. Most unlikely would be har for car (showing the influence of a less prominent word in the second tone unit) or lit for hit (showing a final consonant replacing an initial one)," says David Crystal.

Freud on Slips of the Tongue

According to Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, "If a slip of the tongue that turns what the speaker intended to say into its opposite is made by one of the adversaries in a serious argument, it immediately puts him at a disadvantage, and his opponent seldom wastes any time in exploiting the advantage for his own ends."

The Lighter Side of a Tongue Slip

From the television show, "Parks and Recreation"...

Jerry: For my murinal, I was inspired by the death of my grandma.
Tom: You said murinal!
[Everyone laughs]
Jerry: No, I didn't.
Ann: Yes, you did. You said murinal. I heard it.
Jerry: Anyway, she—
April: Jerry, why don't you put that murinal in the men's room so people can murinate all over it?
Tom: Jerry, go to the doctor. You might have a murinary tract infection.
[Jerry takes down his mural and walks away defeated.]
Jerry: I just wanted to show you my art.
Everyone: Murinal! Mural! Murinal!


Aitchison, Jean. "Slip of the Tongue." The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Edited by Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bombardieri, Marcella. "Romney Mixes Up Osama, Obama During S.C. Speech." The Boston Globe, 24 Oct., 2007.

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901). Transcribed by Anthea Bell, Penguin, 2002.

Mason, Rowena. "Cameron Mocked After Describing Election as 'Career-Defining.'" The Guardian, 1 May, 2015.

Suellentrop, Chris. "Kerry Puts the Gloves On." Slate, 16 Oct., 2004.

"The Camel." Parks and Recreation, season 2, episode 9, NBC, 12 Nov., 2009.

Young, Robert Louis. Understanding Misunderstandings: A Practical Guide to More Successful Human Interaction. University of Texas Press, 1999.

Yule, George. The Study of Language. 4th ed., Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Slip of the Tongue?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/slip-of-the-tongue-sot-1692106. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is a Slip of the Tongue? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/slip-of-the-tongue-sot-1692106 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Slip of the Tongue?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/slip-of-the-tongue-sot-1692106 (accessed March 22, 2023).