A Glossary of Freudian Terminology

Doug Davis1
Haverford College

The following partial, tentative, somewhat simplistic list of definitions/explications for terms used by Freud in the assigned readings is a work in progress. For a simple overview of Freud's concepts, refer to the linked Freud primer.

If there are terms you'd like added, or if you'd like to revise a definition, add one of your own, or give an example of the process or phenomenon described, let me know.


With 23 volumes of collected works on psychology over a 40 year period, Freud has been among the most prolific and influenctial of our theoriests. I think of this work as falling into four broad categories:

  • theories and observations on psychopathology, neurotic etiology, and treatment: clinical psychiatry
  • theories and examples relating to the psychodynamics of interpretation: hermeneutics (EB, OED)
  • theories and reconstruction concerning early childhood and its relation to adult character: personality development
  • theories and imaginative discussions of cultural systems, religion, art, and literature: cultural psychology

I suggest you start with Freud's own overview of psychoanalysis, from the 1926 (13th Edition) Encyclopedia Britannica. You should understand why psychoanalysis is so concerned with allegedly unconscious mental processes, and why interpretation of "Freudian slips, "screen memories," and dreams (e.g., "Irma") are deemed important.

Neurosis and Therapy

You should be able to recognize and use major concepts like transference/counter-transference, to distinguish actual from psychoneurosis, to understand the transition from Freud's pre-psychoanalytic "Seduction Theory" to his later Oedipal theory of the cause of neuroses, and to recognize examples of these concepts in Freud's accounts of hysteria (e.g., "Dora").


"Transference" refers to any distortion of a present relationship because of unresolved (and mostly unconscious) issues left over from early relationships, especially with the parents in childhood. All distortion of the interaction between doctor and patient (or boss-worker, teacher-student, any hierarchical relationship) by the needs and behaviors that were most meaningful in childhood are forms of transference. When the manifestation is in the patient -- e.g., Dora's being distracted by Freud's smelling of smoke, which reminds her of both her father and Herr K. -- it's just "transference." When the manifestation is in the doctor -- e.g., Freud's insisting that Dora was so distracted -- it's properly called "counter-transference." In psychoanalytic therapy, the very vagueness of the rules and the apparent powerlessnes of the patient stimulate transferences distortions of both a sexual and an agressive sort. As these are noted and interpreted by the analyst (who is perhaps simultaneouly having trouble with their own "counter-transference" reactions to the patient's seductiveness and hostility) the therapy makes it apparent to the patient how neurotic tendencies from earlier life are distorting relationships in th here and now. The analysis and treatment of the “transference neurosis” is thus often described as the essence of psychoanalytic therapy.

Dreams and their Interpretation

The technique of interpretation. The Freudian prototype for understanding subtle mental processes is the dream. Like the more-accessible examples of "Freudian slips" (parapraxes, "faulty actions" [Ger. Fehleistungen]) and jokes, dreams are held to be the result of preconscious and unconscious motives or "wishes" that, when stimulated by a seemingly trivial event -- the so-called day residue -- are elaborated during sleep into a latent dream that is subjected to censorship and finds partial expression in the manifest dream that is partially recalled after waking. The interpretation of a dream, like that of a neurotic symptom or slip, involves working backwards from the conscious to the presumed unconscious thoughts by means of free association -- allowing all ideas connected to the elements of the dream into consciousness. These associated thoughts are verbalized and recorded, then examined for recurrent themes and shared images.

The "dream-work." Freud assumed that the formation of a dream involved:

  • day residues: one or more seemingly innocent waking (conscious) trains of thought that stimulated preconscious associations to various themes and issues in one's life, beginning to arouse unconscious/repressed wishes
  • further accumulation of unconscious wishes during sleep, as repressed wishes from early ("infantile") life are linked by the weakened ego to those from the more recent past
  • censorship of any images that too directly express repressed material, since this would evoke anxiety and threaten to wake the dreamer
  • secondary elaboration by the dreaming ego of the condensed and displaced dream thoughts into a more or less story-like dream

Those associated ideas loosely connected to the largest number of manifest dream elements are the condensed and displaced representatives of the most "dream work," and hence the most richly revealing of the dreamer's unconscious life. Due to "condensation," each manifest dream image is thus assumed to represent several latent thoughts or wishes; but due to "displacement," none of these are represented directly. Because no dream thought can find undisguised expression in the manifest dream (due to censorship) those images that do make it into the dream as experienced are the result of several unconscious thoughts converging on one image, i.e., they are over-determined.

The Topographic and Structural Theories of the Mind


Not all of Freud's jargon is worth memorizing. You should be familiar with major Freudian concepts, such as those explained in this glossary.

Beginning with letters to Fliess in the late1890s, Freud developed the idea of distinguishing mental events on the basis of their accessibility to conscious awareness. This early, "topographic," theory of the mind was elaborated in the 1900 Interpretation of Dreams. With The Ego and the Id (1923) Freud subsumed the topographic concepts Cs., Pcs., and Ucs. into the "structural" concepts Ego, Id, and Superego.


(Cs. das Bewusste ): The actual contents of awareness; i.e., what one is conscious of at a given moment. Freud's way of talking about "the conscious" is similar to what a cognitivie psychologist means by attention.


(Pcs., das Vorbewusste): The entire set of contents of the mind accessible to consciousness but not in awareness at the moment; i.e., what is descriptively unconscious but not blocked from access by repression or other psychological defenses. Freud sometimes compared conscious attention to a sensory process, and the Pcs. as the vast majority of material on which the "sense organ" of consciousness was not directed.


(Ucs. das Unbewusste ): Mental processes not acccessible to consciousness by direct means, i.e., by turning attention to them. Their existence must thus be inferred through examination of gaps in consciousness, symptoms, dreams, etc. The Ucs. is said to be dynamically, not merely descriptively, un-conscious, since its contents are blocked from consciousness by repression.


This pseudo-Greek term was introduced by Freud's translator/editor James Strachey for the German Besetzung, which conveys the idea of something's being filled or occupied. As used in Freud's 1895 "Project for a Scientific Psychology," for example, cathexis refers to the degree to which a neuron is filled with a quantity of energy and hence in a state of altered readiness for discharge. Freud also makes a crucial (but not fully defensible) assumption that the accumulation of large quantities of cathexis in neurons is a direct source of painful sensations ("unpleasure"), and that "pleasure" consists neurologically in a low level of cathexis. Ucs. material with strong cathexis would break through into consciousness, causing unpleasure, but for an equally strong opposing anti-cathexis. By the time the "structural" theory of the mind is published in 1923, Freud assigns the ego the function of maintaining preconscious “anti-cathexes.” These are weakened in sleep, intoxication, and psychosis, allowing the Ucs. material to enter consciousness with little distortion. The ego is also said to direct attention to parts of the Pcs. by "hyper-cathecting" them with attention.


Freud's model of the mind in terms of a balance among systems invested with certain quantities of mental energy is called his "economic" model. Libido is the name Freud gives to the "energy" in the mental system as understood by him.  While sometimes the term is used to refer to all instinctual urges, Freud is usually careful to say that all libido is originally related to the "sexual instincts."


(das Es, lit. "the it")
Freud borrowed this term from Georg Groddeck's (1923) The Book of the It. Groddeck defines it thus:

I hold the view that man is animated by the Unknown, that there is within him an "Es," an "It," some wondrous force which directs both what he himself does, and what happens to him. The affirmation "I live" is only conditionally correct, it espresses only a small and superficial part of the fundamental principle, "Man is lived by the It."
(Groddeck, 1923/1961, p. 11)

The notion that we experience as other, as it rather than I, our own deepest sexual and aggressive motives -- and their linkage to memory images, to the flow of speech and action, and to the general tone of our personality -- is at the very center of Freud's psychology. His own best discussion of these matters is in the 1933 New Introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis, where Freud sums up the goal of therapy -- and indeed of all healthy personality development -- with the evocative epigram, "Where id was, there shall ego be" (Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, literally "Where it was, I shall come to be").


(das Ich, lit. the "I")
Freud introduces the term in the 1895 "Project" to refer to a set of permanently cathected (Psy) neurons which function to inhibit direct transmission of quantities of excitation along primitive pathways. They achieve this by providing a side channel through which energy is diverted. The actual acquisition and workings of such a system is difficult to picture precisely from Freud's description, but he clearly conceived its role as reducing the probability of painful associations, allowing inhibition of direct (reflexive) discharge of action, and permitting discrimination of memories (which are acompanied by activity of this ego system) from perceptions (which are not). Hallucinations present a potential confusion between perception and endogenously-produced images, and Freud calls the strongly-cathected "wishful" processes associated with hallucinatory images "psychical primary processes," while moderations of such pathways by activity of the ego-system he calls "psychical secondary processes" (SE 3, pp. 326-327). The general original orientation of the nervous system is toward rapid and direct discharge of cathexis, and this continues to be the case in the "primary process" parts of the system. With experience, however, increasingly large parts of the system become richly connected pathways for small quantities of "bound" cathexis which allows tension to be drained off without either discharge through motor action or accumulation of unpleasurable levels of cathexis.


(das überich, lit. the "over-I)
The largely unconscious part of the personality responsible for moral self-control -- roughly, the "conscience." Freud says the superego

develops out of the id, dominates the ego and represents the inhibitions of instinct characteristic of man (Freud, 1926).

More formal/detailed D2 work on Freud:

Freud Bibliography

Note: This material is designed to be used in conjunction with my Haverford Psychology courses, and not as a stand-alone introduction to Sigmund Freud's ideas. Please do note cite withour permission. Copywrite ©1994-1998, Douglas A. Davis.