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An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian
Jacques Lacan is arguably the most original and influential psychoanalytic thinker since
Freud. His ideas have revolutionised the clinical practice of psychoanalysis and continue
to have a major impact in fields as diverse as film studies, literary criticism, feminist
theory and philosophy. Lacan’s writings are notorious for their complexity and
idiosyncratic style and An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis will be
invaluable for reading in every discipline where his influence is felt.
Detailed definitions are provided for over two hundred Lacanian terms. Attention is
given both to Lacan’s use of common psychoanalytic terms and how his own
terminology developed through the various stages of his teaching. Taking full account of
the clinical basis of Lacan’s work, the dictionary details the historical and institutional
background to Lacanian ideas. Each major concept is traced back to its origins in the
work of Freud, Saussure, Hegel and others.
An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis provides a unique source of
reference for psychoanalysts in training and in practice. Placing Lacan’s ideas in their
clinical context, the dictionary is also an ideal companion for readers in other disciplines.
Dylan Evans trained as a Lacanian psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires, London and Paris.
He is currently working on a PhD at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
An Introductory Dictionary of
Lacanian Psychoanalysis
Dylan Evans
London and New York
First published 1996 by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2006.
“To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis
or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to”
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 29 West 35th Street, New York,
NY 10001
© 1996 Dylan Evans
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or
by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including
photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission
in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from
the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available
from the Library of Congress
ISBN 0-203-13557-1 Master e-book ISBN
ISBN 0-203-17633-2 (Adobe e-Reader Format)
ISBN 0-415-13522-2 (Print Edition) (hbk)
ISBN 0-415-13523-0 (Print Edition) (pbk)
List of figures
The format of the dictionary
An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis
Appendix: Page references to Lacan’s Écrits
Index of terms
List of figures
Figure 1
The Borromean knot
Figure 2
The structure of the four discourses
Figure 3
The four discourses
Figure 4
Table of partial drives
Figure 5
The graph of desire—elementary cell
Figure 6
The graph of desire—complete graph
Figure 7
Table of three types of lack of object
Figure 8
First formula of metaphor
Figure 9
Second formula of metaphor
Figure 10
Formula of metonymy
Figure 11
The moebius strip
Figure 12
The optical model
Figure 13
The paternal metaphor
Figure 14
Schema L
Figure 15
Schema L (simplified form)
Figure 16
The diagram of sexual difference
Figure 17
The Saussurean sign
Figure 18
The Saussurean algorithm
Figure 19
The torus
My discourse proceeds in the following way: each term is
sustained only in its topological relation with the others.
Jacques Lacan (S11, 89)
Psychoanalytic theories are languages in which to discuss psychoanalytic treatment.
Today there are many such languages, each with its own particular lexis and syntax. The
fact that these languages use many of the same terms, inherited from Freud, can create
the impression that they are in fact all dialects of the same language. Such an impression
is, however, misleading. Each psychoanalytic theory articulates these terms in a unique
way, as well as introducing new terms of its own, and is thus a unique language,
ultimately untranslatable. One of the most important psychoanalytic languages in use
today is that developed by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1901–81). This
dictionary is an attempt to explore and elucidate this language, which has often been
accused of being infuriatingly obscure and sometimes of constituting a totally
incomprehensible ‘psychotic’ system. This obscurity has even been seen as a deliberate
attempt to ensure that Lacanian discourse remains the exclusive property of a small
intellectual elite, and to protect it from external criticism. If this is the case, then this
dictionary is a move in the other direction, an attempt to open Lacanian discourse up to
wider scrutiny and critical engagement.
The dictionary is an ideal way of exploring a language since it has the same structure
as a language; it is a synchronic system in which the terms have no positive existence,
since they are each defined by their mutual differences; it is a closed, self-referential
structure in which meaning is nowhere fully present but always delayed in continual
metonymy; it defines each term by reference to other terms and thus denies the novice
reader any point of entry (and, to refer to a Lacanian formula, if there is no point of entry,
there can be no sexual relationship).
Many others have perceived the value of the dictionary as a tool for exploring
psychoanalytic theory. The most famous example is the classic dictionary of
psychoanalysis by Laplanche and Pontalis (1967). There is also the short dictionary by
Rycroft (1968) which is extremely readable. In addition to these two dictionaries which
concentrate mainly on Freud, there are also dictionaries of Kleinian psychoanalysis
(Hinshelwood, 1989), of Jungian psychoanalysis (Samuels et al., 1986), and of
psychoanalysis and feminism (Wright, 1992).
A dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis is conspicuous by its absence from the above
list. It is not that no such dictionary has yet been written; there are, in fact, a number of
dictionaries in French that deal extensively with Lacanian terms (Chemama, 1993;
Kauftman, 1994), and even a humorous Lacanian dictionary (Saint-Drôme, 1994).
However, none of these has yet been translated, and thus the anglophone student of Lacan
has been left without a useful tool of reference. The dictionaries by Laplanche and
Pontalis (1967) and by Wright (1992) include articles on some Lacanian terms, but not
many. A few English-language publications have included glossaries which provide a key
to a number of Lacanian terms (e.g. Sheridan, 1977; Roustang, 1986), but these too
include only a few terms, with extremely brief remarks attached to each. The present
work will therefore go some way towards filling an obvious gap in reference material in
While many have seen the value of the dictionary as a tool for exploring
psychoanalytic languages, not so many have been fully aware of the dangers involved.
One important danger is that, by emphasising the synchronic structure of language, the
dictionary can obscure the diachronic dimension. All languages, including those which
are otherwise known as psychoanalytic theories, are in a continual state of flux, since
they change with use. By overlooking this dimension, the dictionary can create the
erroneous impression that languages are fixed unchanging entities.
This dictionary attempts to avoid this danger by incorporating etymological
information wherever appropriate and by giving some indication of how Lacan’s
discourse evolved over the course of his teaching. Lacan’s engagement with
psychoanalytic theory spans fifty years, and it is hardly surprising that his discourse
underwent important changes during this time. However, these changes are not always
well understood. Broadly speaking, there are two main ways of misrepresenting them. On
the one hand, some commentators present the development of Lacan’s thought in terms
of dramatic and sudden ‘epistemological breaks’; 1953, for example, is sometimes
presented as the moment of a radically new ‘linguistic turn’ in Lacan’s work. On the
other hand, some writers go to the other extreme and present Lacan’s work as a single
unfolding narrative with no changes of direction, as if all the concepts existed from the
In discussing how the various terms in Lacan’s discourse undergo semantic shifts
during the course of his work, I have tried to avoid both of these errors. By showing how
the changes are often gradual and hesitant, I hope to problematise the simplistic
narratives of epistemological breaks. One important point that such narratives ignore is
that whenever Lacan’s terms acquire new meanings, they never lose their older ones; his
theoretical vocabulary advances by means of accretion rather than mutation. On the other
hand, by pointing out the changes and semantic shifts, I hope to counter the illusion that
all of Lacan’s concepts are always already there (an illusion which Lacan himself
condemns; Lacan, 1966c:67). In this way it should be possible to appreciate both the
elements that remain constant in Lacan’s teaching and those that shift and evolve.
The dictionary contains entries for over two hundred terms used by Lacan in the
course of his work. Many more terms could have been included, and the main criterion
for selecting these terms rather than others is one of frequency. The reader will therefore
find entries for such terms as ‘symbolic’, ‘neurosis’, and other such terms which figure
prominently in Lacan’s work, but not to other terms such as ‘holophrase’, which Lacan
only discusses on three or four occasions.
In addition to terms frequently employed by Lacan, a few other terms have been
included which Lacan employs infrequently or not at all. In this group are terms which
serve to provide a historical and theoretical context for Lacan’s own terms (e.g. ‘Kleinian
psychoanalysis’), and terms which bring together an important set of related themes in his
work which would otherwise be distributed among disparate entries (e.g. ‘sexual
Besides the criteria of frequency and contextual information, the selection of terms has
also, inevitably, been governed by my own particular way of reading Lacan. Another
writer, with a different reading of Lacan, would undoubtedly have made a different
selection of terms. I do not pretend that the reading implicit in my selection of terms is
the only or the best reading of Lacan. It is one reading of Lacan among many, as partial
and selective as any other.
The partiality and limitations of this dictionary concern not only the matter of the
selection of terms, but also the matter of sources. Thus the dictionary is not based on the
complete works of Lacan, which have not yet been published in their entirety, but only on
a selection of his works (mainly the published works, plus a few unpublished ones). This
almost exclusive reliance on published material means that there are inevitably gaps in
the dictionary. However, as Lacan himself points out, ‘the condition of any reading is, of
course, that it impose limits on itself’ (S20, 62).
The aim has not been, therefore, to present a work of the same breadth and detail as
the classic dictionary by Laplanche and Pontalis, but merely to present a broad outline of
the most salient terms in Lacanian discourse; hence the adjective ‘introductory’ in the
title. At a future date it may be possible to produce a more comprehensive and detailed
edition of this dictionary based on Lacan’s complete works, but the current absence of
any English-language dictionary of Lacanian thought is perhaps sufficient justification
for publishing the work in its present incomplete and rudimentary state. This dictionary
may thus be thought of as a resistance, in the way Lacan defined resistance, as ‘the
present state of an interpretation’ (S2, 228).
Another self-imposed limitation has been the decision to restrict references to
secondary sources to a minimum. Thus the reader will find few allusions to Lacan’s
commentators and intellectual heirs. To exclude references to the work of present-day
Lacanian analysts is not such a grave omission as it might seem, since this work has
consisted almost entirely of commentaries on Lacan rather than of radically original
developments (the work of Jacques-Alain Miller is a notable exception). Such a scenario
is completely different to that of Klein’s thought, which has been developed in very
original ways by such followers as Paula Heimann, Wilfred Bion, Donald Meltzer and
However, to exclude references to the work of Lacan’s more radical critics, such as
Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, or to those who have applied his work
in the fields of literary criticism and film theory, may seem a more glaring omission.
There are two main reasons for this omission. Firstly, it is often forgotten in the Englishspeaking world that Lacan’s work is first and foremost aimed at providing analysts with
help in conducting analytic treatment. By excluding references to the applications of
Lacan’s work in literary criticism, film studies and feminist theory I hope to emphasise
this point and thus to counter the neglect of Lacan’s clinical basis by his Englishspeaking readers. Secondly, I also want to encourage the reader to engage directly with
Lacan himself, on Lacan’s own terms, without prejudicing the debate for or against him
by reference to his admirers or to his critics. However, there are some exceptions to this
rule of omission, when the debate around a particular term has seemed to be so important
that it would be misleading to omit all reference to it (e.g. ‘phallus’, ‘gaze’).
My decision to stress the clinical basis of Lacan’s work is not aimed at excluding nonanalysts from engaging with Lacan. On the contrary; the dictionary is aimed not only at
psychoanalysts, but also at readers approaching Lacan’s work from other disciplines.
Lacan himself actively encouraged debate between psychoanalysts and philosophers,
linguists, mathematicians, anthropologists and others, and today there is growing interest
in Lacanian psychoanalysis in many other areas, especially in film studies, feminist
theory and literary criticism. For those with backgrounds in these disciplines the
difficulties involved in reading Lacan can be especially great precisely due to their
unfamiliarity with the dynamics of psychoanalytic treatment. By stressing the clinical
basis of Lacan’s work, I hope to situate the terms in their proper context and thus make
them clearer to readers who are not psychoanalysts. It is my belief that this is important
even for those readers who wish to use Lacan’s work in other areas such as cultural
Another problem for readers approaching Lacan’s work from non-psychoanalytic
backgrounds may be their unfamiliarity with the Freudian tradition in which Lacan
worked. This dictionary addresses this issue by presenting, in many cases, a short
summary of the way Freud used the term, before outlining the specifically Lacanian
usage. Because of their brevity, these summaries run the risk of oversimplifying complex
concepts, and will undoubtedly strike those more familiar with Freud’s work as
somewhat rudimentary. Nevertheless, it is hoped that they will be helpful to those readers
unversed in Freud.
Given the wide range of readers at whom this dictionary is aimed, one problem has
been to decide the level of complexity at which to pitch the entries. The solution
attempted here has been to pitch different entries at different levels. There is thus a basic
core of entries pitched at a low level of complexity, some of which present the most
fundamental terms in Lacan’s discourse (e.g. ‘psychoanalysis’, ‘mirror stage’,
‘language’), while others sketch the historical context in which these terms evolved (e.g.
Freud (return to), ‘International Psycho-Analytical Association’, ‘school’, ‘seminar’,
‘ego-psychology’). These entries then refer the reader to more complex terms, which are
pitched at a higher level and which the beginner should not hope to grasp immediately.
This will I hope allow the reader to find some kind of direction in navigating through the
dictionary. However, the dictionary is not an ‘introduction to Lacan’; there are already
plenty of introductory works on Lacan available in English (e.g. Benvenuto and
Kennedy, 1986; Bowie, 1991; Grosz, 1990; Lemaire, 1970; Sarup, 1992), including some
excellent ones (e.g. Žižek, 1991; Leader, 1995). The dictionary is, rather, an introductory
reference book, a guide which the reader may refer back to in order to answer a specific
question or to follow up a particular line of enquiry. It is not meant to be a substitute for
reading Lacan, but a companion to such reading. For this reason copious page references
have been provided throughout the dictionary, the intention being to allow the reader to
go back to the text and place the references in context.
Another problem concerns the issue of translation. Different translators have used
different words to render Lacan’s terminology into English. For example Alan Sheridan
and John Forrester render Lacan’s opposition between sens and signification as
‘meaning’ and ‘signification’, whereas Stuart Schneiderman prefers ‘sense’ and
‘meaning’ respectively. Anthony Wilden renders parole as ‘word’, whereas Sheridan
prefers ‘speech’. In all cases, I have followed Sheridan’s usage, on the grounds that it is
his translations of Lacan’s Écrits and The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental
Concepts of Psychoanalysis that are still the main texts for readers of Lacan in English. In
order to avoid possible confusion, the French terms used by Lacan are also given along
with the English translations. I have also followed Sheridan’s practice of leaving certain
terms untranslated (e.g. jouissance), again on the grounds that this has become
established practice in anglophone Lacanian discourse (although I personally agree with
Forrester’s criticisms of such a practice; see Forrester, 1990:99–101).
The one issue on which I differ from Sheridan is my decision to leave his algebraic
symbols in their original form. For example I have left the symbols A and a as they are,
rather than translating them as O and o as Sheridan does. Not only is this common
practice in translating Lacan into other languages (such as Spanish and Portuguese), but
Lacan himself preferred his ‘little letters’ to remain untranslated. Furthermore, as has
become clear at the various international conferences of Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is
very useful for analysts with different mother-tongues to have some basic symbols in
common which can facilitate their discussions of Lacan.
With respect to the English words used to translate Freud’s German terms, I have
generally adopted those used by James Strachey in the Standard Edition, with the
exception (now common practice) of rendering Trieb as ‘drive’ rather than ‘instinct’.
Another, more fundamental problem is the paradox involved in the very act of writing
a dictionary of Lacanian terms. Dictionaries usually attempt to pin down the meaning(s)
of each term and eradicate ambiguity. The whole thrust of Lacan’s discourse, however,
subverts any such attempt to halt the continual slippage of the signified under the
signifier. His style, notorious for its difficult …
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