To understand the term slippage, one will have to understand the terms signified and signifier. The signified can be defined as the meaning or general idea of a given sign. The signifier can be defined as that sign’s material form.
For some, the relationship between the two is stable. For instance, a green light can be a signifier. It has a physical, concrete form. What’s signified by the green light—what it means—is go.
According to others, like certain deconstructionists, the dynamic between the signified and the signifier should not be seen as so straightforward. There’s actually a cascade of variables and alternate meanings produced by this relationship—especially in an industrialized, fragmented world. These theorists labeled the wobbly relationship between the signifier and signified as slippage.
For a passage that portrays slippage in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” think about when the narrator introduces his employees. After revealing their peculiar names, the narrator notes,
In truth, they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters.
Here, one can claim that slippage is occurring. Take Ginger Nut, for instance. Ginger Nut is a young person. The signifier, the tangible form, is a twelve-year-old boy. What’s signified by this boy should, ideally, be notions and ideas about children and young people.
Of course, there’s much more to Ginger Nut in terms of signifier and signified. One of Ginger Nut’s main duties is fetching the ginger nut treat for Turkey and Nippers. Now, taking this into consideration, what’s signified isn’t just the idea of a young person but the concept of a young working person. This could branch off into several other ideas, like exploitation, child labor, and so on.
Indeed, as the passages about Ginger Nut indicate, when it comes to signified and signifier, there’s a proliferation of connections or slippage. Such an idea might be confusing and hard to understand, but that’s kind of the point of slippage. It tries to make the argument that the connection between the sign's physical form (signifier) and its meaning (signified) is not supposed to be simple.
For an additional example of slippage, consider when the narrator finds out that Bartleby has been living in the office.
Yes, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor's hall all by himself.
In this instance, there’s further slippage. The signifier, the physical office, is somehow, simultaneously, a person’s physical home. This seems to mean that the relationship between Bartleby’s work life and personal life lacks boundaries; in other words, there’s slippage.