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Unconsciously? Subconsciously?

Q: I’ve just read Pearl Buck’s final novel, The Eternal Wonder, which was discovered dozens of years after her death and may have been a first draft. At one point, she describes a character who scarcely listens while “storing away unconsciously” the conversations around him. Do you think she meant—and would eventually have used—“subconsciously” instead of “unconsciously”?

A: Both “unconsciously” and “subconsciously” can describe doing something without being aware of it—the way Pearl Buck is using “unconsciously” in that paragraph in The Eternal Wonder:

“People were talking again, accustomed now to her presence, but he scarcely listened, except as he always listened, saying little himself but storing away unconsciously the sound of these voices, the changing expressions of their faces, their postures, their ways of eating, all details of life while though useless, it seemed, in themselves, he could not help accumulating because it was how he lived.”

So either word is fine as far as meaning, but would Buck have eventually changed “unconsciously” to “subconsciously”? Perhaps, if she had done a lot of tinkering with the manuscript. Then again, perhaps not.

The decision would probably have depended on rhythm. If she had ultimately broken up that long paragraph or replaced one of the pronouns with a noun, “subconsciously” might have sounded better to her ear than “unconsciously.”

However, it’s silly to pick apart a single paragraph of a work by a major writer. An “improvement” or two in one paragraph might weaken the work as a whole.

As for the etymology here, “unconsciously” is the older of the two adverbs, showing up in the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “in an unconscious manner; without conscious action, effort, thought, or awareness; unknowingly.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Death’s Vision, a 1709 poem by the Presbyterian minister John Reynolds about the relationship between philosophy and poetry:

“But Pardon that I thus / Unconsciously Accuse! / How much more Cruel have I been to Thee?”

“Subconsciously,” which appeared in the mid-19th century, means “in a subconscious manner; without conscious perception of control; (also) by means of the subconscious,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from The Logic of Political Economy, an 1844 treatise on economics by Thomas de Quincey:

“But there is still a final evasion likely to move subconsciously in the thoughts of a student, which it is better to … strengthen until it becomes generally visible.”

The two adverbs are derived from the earlier adjectives “unconscious” and “subconscious.”

When “unconscious” first showed up in the late 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “not having knowledge or awareness of a fact or circumstance; unaware, heedless; unwitting.”

The first Oxford citation is from an anonymous 1678 translation of De Mirabilibus Pecci, a Latin poem by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes about the wonders of the Peak District in Derbyshire:

“It moves in haste … it flies. / (Unconscious of its Fault which tortur’d cries).” We’ve gone to another source and expanded the citation to give it context.

When “subconscious” appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it meant “operating or existing (just) below the level of conscious perception” or “not clearly perceived” or “instinctive, unwitting.”

The earliest example in the OED is from an essay by De Quincey in the June 1834 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine:

“The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not … without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.”

Both words, “unconscious” and “subconscious,” showed up in 19th-century psychological terminology, first as nouns and then as adjectives.

The OED defines “the unconscious” used in the psychological sense as “that part of the mind which is inaccessible to the consciousness; spec. an aspect of the mind containing material repressed from and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1818 lecture notes by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “As in every work of Art the Conscious, is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it … so is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.”

The OED defines “the subconscious” as “an aspect of the mind containing material not immediately available to the consciousness,” specifically “that containing material of which a person is not currently aware, but which can readily be brought back into the consciousness” or “that containing material repressed from, and not directly accessible to the conscious mind, but capable of influencing emotions and behaviour.”

The first clearcut Oxford citation is from a July 1878 issue of the Cornhill Magazine: “We are at each successive moment elevating one impression or group of impressions after another into clear consciousness, while the rest fall back into the dim regions of the sub-conscious.”

“Although Freud used the term subconscious (Unterbewusstsein) in his early writings, he later rejected it in favour of the less ambiguous terms preconscious (Vorbewusstsein) and unconscious (Unbewusstsein),” the OED explains.

But in 1920, the dictionary notes, Freud replaced those terms “with his system of idego, and superego,” and “subconscious is not therefore used as a technical term in psychoanalysis.”

“In Psychology more generally subconscious is sometimes used as a synonym for preconscious, but the latter term is preferred in more precise or technical writing,” the OED adds.

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