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Poland, W.S. (1983). On Surmise. Psychoanal Q., 52:599-600.

(1983). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 52:599-600

On Surmise

Warren S. Poland, M.D.

Much current psychoanalytic study addresses the question of how the analyst comes to know that about the patient which he then interprets. Listening to a patient, the analyst tries to attend to both words and music, forming tentative hypotheses as he proceeds. He surmises the patient's meanings, testing out those tentative formulations and trying to stay faithful to the patient's import. It can be no accident that in everyday conversation "imply" and "infer" are so often interchanged.

Let us consider "surmise," the word we use to speak of inferring or drawing hypotheses on the basis of slight or preliminary evidence. When we surmise, we take hints from what we hear or see or otherwise sense. But it was not always so. "Surmise" comes to us from the French, and before that the Latin. In the French, sur is "on"; mise, the past participle of mettre, "to put." Thus, surmise, put onto. Indeed, the intervening old French word was surmise, the past participle of surmettre, which meant not simply "to put onto" but more specifically "to accuse." It was similar to the Latin from which it in its turn came: supermittere, "to throw on."

Therefore, we discover that our word for inferring has developed from our word for implying, in fact from our word even more strong than that, for accusing. We may have found a linguistic specimen similar to the law that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Perhaps the development of the word recapitulates the psychologic development.

In our early one-person psychology the word, as Sharpe (1940) pointed out, may serve as a metaphor for a bodily function, the earliest ego being a body ego. But then there develops a dawning awareness of the other.

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