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How to tell if you’re anal retentive

Dear Cecil:

What exactly is meant by "anal retentive"? I think I am that. I saw a T-shirt that said, "You are anal retentive if you wonder if there should be a hyphen." I wondered if there should be a hyphen in anal retentive. I have looked some of this stuff up at the library but got tired. I would appreciate your help.

Collyer, Honolulu, Hawaii

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Yeah, turning those pages definitely takes it out of you. Anal retentiveness is an elaboration of Freud’s ideas on anality, first published in 1908. Freud wrote that people with “anal character” were meticulous, parsimonious, and obstinate. Though it’s not clear who first used the term “anal retentive,” in 1924 a student of Freud’s named Karl Abraham distinguished A-Rness from anal expulsiveness. The latter is pretty much what it sounds like, the predisposition to make a mess, while parsimony and obstinacy are thought to be A-R traits. Meticulousness, the third of Freud’s three anal characteristics, is thought to be a reaction against anal expulsiveness.

Freud talked about anality in part because he thought toilet training was a major factor in personality development. However, while “anal retentive” survives in common usage (undoubtedly because it seems like such an upscale way of calling someone an A-hole), the concept is not taken very seriously by psychoanalysts today. I quote from Chicago psychoanalyst Robert Galatzer-Levy:

“Although experiences with feces and toilet training may serve as a model for psychological functioning in later life, toilet training per se is usually not so important as why such a model was chosen and how it functions currently. There may be less emphasis on `anality’ due to the fact indoor plumbing has become more available.

“The invention of indoor plumbing at the end of the last century was a major source of misery in that it demanded much more control of defecation than was necessary in a world of chamber pots and outhouses. Large families such as Freud’s (eight to ten people) had to share a single toilet, and Anna and Sigmund were evidently plagued by constipation. Attempts at early toilet training may have made things worse. As the number of toilets per person has grown and ideas about toilet training became more liberal (promoted not only by Dr. Spock but also the washing machine and Pampers), anal retention came to seem less central to psychological life.”

It may seem a little comical to you that Freud erected an impressive theoretical edifice on the fact that he couldn’t get into the bathroom in the morning. Fact is, there has been a bitter debate over the last couple decades about the extent to which Freudian theory and psychoanalysis generally are (or were) based on similar bits of half-baked speculation. Some argue that psychoanalysis lacks any scientific basis, and Cecil must say he does not see much effort on the part of the great psychoanalytic theorists to come up with testable hypotheses, the hallmark of the scientific method. No need to get into that now, but all parties to the debate apparently agree that “anal retentive” is slung about strictly for its comic value today, not because it has any intellectual heft.

Cecil Adams

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