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Here's another phrase I hear in US TVs and Films, but take for granted... What's the etymology of the idiom "anally retentive", and how did it become synonymous with being pedantic?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Etymonline states:

Anal-retentive first attested 1957, in psychological jargon.

According to Wikipedia, which does a much more thorough job of explaining than I will, the term comes from the psychological work of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Freud postulated that the anal stage of development, or that regarding toilet training, could have a profound effect on the later personality of a child.

The term anal-retentive refers to the retention, in later life, of such behaviors associated with the anal stage. These behaviors include:

"orderliness, stubbornness, a compulsion for control".

The term to describe those people who reject these characteristics is anal-expulsive.

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Wikipedia also states that this isn't taken very seriously these days, and was also partially about lack of indoor plumbing. – Django Reinhardt Nov 2 '11 at 12:30
Indeed the science is now considered goofy, but as you know, the term is in wide use to describe these behaviors. Just not in polite or formal company :) – Brendon Nov 2 '11 at 12:37

Per Wikipedia. In the psychology of Freud, the anal stage is said to follow the oral stage of infant or early-childhood development. This is a time when an infant's attention moves from oral stimulation to anal stimulation (usually the bowels but occasionally the bladder), usually synchronous with learning to control his or her excretory functions, a time of toilet training. Freud theorized that children who experience conflicts during this period of time may develop "anal" personality traits, namely those associated with a child's efforts at excretory control: orderliness, stubbornness, a compulsion for control.[2] Although "anal rententive" survives in common usage, the concept is not taken very seriously by psychoanalysts today. Chicago psychoanalyst Robert Galatzer-Levy speaks of how this theory of Freud is mostly a product of its time when indoor plumbing was new and less numerous per household, and families were large, causing "much more control of defecation than was necessary in a world of chamber pots and outhouses."[3] If these qualities continue into later life, the person is said to be "anal-retentive". Conversely, those who reject anal-retentive characteristics are said to have "anal-expulsive" personality types. Although Freud's theories on early childhood have been influential on the psychological community, research suggests that the overall pattern of parental attitudes has a much more concrete effect on how an infant will grow up. There is no conclusive research linking anal stage conflicts with "anal" personality types.

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Great quote : Does "anal-retentive" have a hyphen? ~Alison Bechdel, 1990 Dykes to Watch Out For calendar. – user14368 Nov 2 '11 at 0:34
Someone who is anally retentive suffers from a personality disorder, and may show symptoms including pedantry. Someone who is pedantic may have no disorder per se, but merely a desire for a stricter adherence to linguistic rules than those around them. The key to the term pedantic is that it is inherently subjective, according to the tolerance of the audience. – user14368 Nov 2 '11 at 0:47

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