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

Maybe you’d get less tired if you did less retaining. 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, which is pretty much what it sounds like, the predisposition to make a mess. Parsimony and obstinacy are thought to be core A-R traits, while meticulousness 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 that 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 grew 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. In fact 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 today strictly for its comic value, not because it has any intellectual heft.

Since no one else will give me a straight answer I thought I’d ask you. Exactly what does the code word “professional” mean? It’s used mostly by women in personal ads. The expensive dating services say they are for “professionals” but have no interest in defining the term. One told me, “Tell me what you do and I’ll tell you if you are a professional.” The old narrow meaning was a self-regulated occupation like doctor or lawyer, but there is definitely something broader, amorphous, pretentious, and possibly mean spirited involved with the use of the word today. –Dante DeAmicis, San Jose, California

Oh, come now. Professional means no dirt under the fingernails, burps audibly only on purpose, no tattoos (on arms, anyway), won’t pick you up in a truck with seats patched with duct tape, and in general, exhibits all manner of blue-collar behavior but either (a) smirks about it, (b) feels guilty about it, or (c) both. But mostly what it means is this: if you have to ask, you ain’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.