Remembering Reinhold Aman.

I was if not shocked then, perhaps, unsettled to learn of the death of the redoubtable Reinhold Aman, who was an expert in both collecting and using offensive language; he even did me the honor of dropping by LH in 2005 to call me an “anonymous dickhead” and a “backstabbing faceless weasel.” Jesse Sheidlower at his blog Strong Language has a well-balanced and thoughtful reminiscence:

Reinhold “Rey” Aman, the expert on offensive language, died on March 2 at the age of 82. Aman is best known as the editor and publisher of the journal Maledicta (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”).

Born in Bavaria in 1936, Aman gained fluency in several languages at a young age, and worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Frankfurt. He studied chemistry and chemical engineering, and worked as an industrial chemist before and after he emigrated to Milwaukee in 1959. He received his PhD in Medieval German from the University of Texas in 1968, his dissertation analyzing the 151 battle scenes in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. A scholar with high standards for the work of others and higher standards for his own work, he was rooted in Bavarian scholarship. After receiving his PhD, he returned to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee as an assistant professor of German, teaching a range of courses in linguistics and German; he retained an interest in German dialectology, writing about Bavarian and Yiddish, and published Bayrisch-Österreichisches Schimpfwörterbuch (“Bavarian-Austrian Dictionary of Swearing”) in multiple editions.

Maledicta was published in 13 volumes from 1977 to 2005, and was a useful mix of scholarly and irreverent study of a tremendous range of offensive language. Articles covered AIDS jokes, “The Pronunciation of Cunnilingus in Dictionaries”, “Verbal Aggression in Dutch Sleeptalking”, the OED’s entry for cock ‘penis’, a translation of Catullus 41, the politics of excrement in Black Arts poets, a semantic analysis of terms for sexual intercourse, “Canadian Gay Jokes”, and “I Wanna Hot Dog for My Roll: Suggestive Song Titles.” Contributors included many prominent figures in the study of language and folklore, such as G. Legman, Allen Walker Read, Leonard R.N. Ashley, Vance Randolph, Roger Steiner, Laurence Urdang, Irving Lewis Allen, Richard Lederer, Dennis Preston, Wolfgang Mieder, and Timothy B. Jay, as well as a number of anonymous or pseudonymous academics. Special issues included festschrifts for Peter Tamony, G. Legman, and the Yiddishist Lilliam Mermin Feinsilver.

He goes on to catalogue Aman’s less attractive side (he was actually imprisoned for sending threatening materials to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and a judge) and ends:

In person, Aman was polite and often charming. He had deep, unqualified love and loyalty to his daughter and her family. He loved feral cats, maybe above all, and would skimp on his own needs to provide for them.* [*The family has requested that any donations go to Forgotten Felines.] He reserved his antagonism for his perceived enemies. Aman genuinely loved language and insults, and loved arguments. His inability to control his conduct was based on a genuine belief that it was the right thing to do; he did not suffer fools lightly, and had absolutely zero tolerance for the hypocrite. The slang lexicographer Tom Dalzell says, “He considered hypocrisy to be his mortal enemy. He was a First Amendment absolutist who spoke what he considered truth to power,” adding “He was as loyal a friend as I have ever had.”

Though his legacy is tarnished by his problematic behavior, it’s nonetheless the case that he was willing to explore difficult topics at a time when serious, or indeed any, treatment of such language was not really possible in academia. Maledicta remains an important source for the study of offensive language. Aman’s wide-ranging knowledge of offensiveness was unparalleled, and he often complained about being typecast as the dirty-words guy. “Obscenity is less than 2 percent of what I do,” he told an interviewer. “I’m interested in verbal aggression. Anything negative. Unfortunately, it’s the vulgarity that gets all the attention. If I never have to write about ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and cocksucker’ again, I’m happy.”

A complicated man. As I wrote elsewhere: He wouldn’t want to rest in peace, so I’ll just hope he’s resting however he would prefer.


  1. Were you anonymous back then?

  2. Yup, that was when I was working for a company in NYC and was worried about my blogging creating a problem with my employer.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    I guess that’s a nicer question than “were you backstabbing back then?” would have been … (In context I take it “faceless” was just a zingier synonym for “anonymous.”

  4. Faceless says:

    Which brings forth the question, how could he tell the shape of your head but not the features of your face?

  5. Not to mention my species. (On the internet, nobody knows you’re a weasel.)

    were you backstabbing back then?

    What they do!

  6. “Look, you anonymous dickhead” takes me back to the punk/indy music fanzine world of the early to mid 1980s. Didn’t know that the Language Hat 2005 comments section was quite so lively. Classic!

  7. We try to maintain the time-honored standards here at the Hattery.

  8. I remember when he popped into alt.usage.english and was hurling vile misogynist invective at one of the semi-regulars, as well as hitting others with collateral insults.

  9. A master of swearing and swearword research? Truly a degenerate special case.

  10. Patrick Collins says:

    If you look at the record of his trial for threats you can see he tried to weasel out of it with weasel words.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    Keith Ivey: I remember when he popped into alt.usage.english and was hurling vile misogynist invective at one of the semi-regulars, as well as hitting others with collateral insults.

    I remember when he did that in sci.lang. Probably some of those morbidly entertaining spillover threads.

  12. Jeffry House says:

    Dr. Aman’s Criminal appeal decision is online. I was amused to see his defense to a charge of threatening his ex-wife by sending her a postcard:

    “The same was true of the post-card which served as the basis for Count 5 (“Estranged Wife Found Slain In Home”). Dr. Aman explained that he mailed the postcard with the same “mischievous intent.” Furthermore, he stated, the communication could not have applied to his ex-wife because they were already divorced and “estranged” meant that “you are not divorced yet.”

    He lost that one, but won his sentence appeal, reducing his sentence from 27 to 18 month in prison.

  13. That’s what his lawyer argued at the trial. On appeal, he raised two issues: improper jury instructions (rejected) and retroactive application of a new sentencing rule (sustained, remanded for resentencing). The letter Aman sent to the judge sounds more insulting than intimidating, and not even that insulting by today’s standards. Instead of mailing his invective, he should have waited for a few years and put it up online.

    For some reason, Aman’s Hillary Clinton’s Pen Pal: A Guide to Life and Lingo in Federal Prison did not quite achieve a cult status during the 2016 presidential campaign.

  14. Kendall Sassoon says:

    I am probably a little late to the party, my father was his friend (George Sassoon, another old bugger who will be sorely missed) and they delighted in each other’s views. My Father said to me, “you should read his stuff” and called him and said “send my daughter some shit to read”. This was in the 80’s O.K.? I Impress the timestamp for a reason. Clinton just got in then, or was just getting in. So I got a shedload of funny, cynical books, called Maledicta. (foolishly lent them to a friend…NEVER lend books!) However, I was surprised to see an entire pamphlet dedicated to how horrible Hillary Clinton was! She was barely a spit stain at the time. She was the first lady. I used to wonder about it, and so started observing American politics. Holy Mackerel! As we watch, it all unfolds. And about bloody time too! Deep respect albeit belated. He was sweet to me when my Dad died and he could not have had Hillary more nailed so early on. Love to all who loved and lost him. 🙂 Kendall

  15. Thanks very much for that charming reminiscence, and it’s never too late to comment around these parts!

  16. AJP Crown says:

    Kendall Sassoon, Wow. When I was young I read both Siegfried Sassoon & Robert Graves and they were my heroes.

    There’s an obituary of your father in the Daily Telegraph that mentions some of his talents. He sounds extraordinary. I would have loved to have had rows with the young Arthur Marshall.

  17. He does indeed. Some excerpts from the obit:

    “I much regretted that he chose not to attend the memorial service for the late King,” Marshall wrote to Siegfried, also reporting experiments with explosives that partly destroyed a science laboratory and primitive wireless broadcasts mocking the masters. Siegfried would turn up to visit his son at Oundle in a 1936 Humber, wearing a hat (worn back to front) which he had rescued from a scarecrow and smoking his pipe upside down to keep out the rain. […]

    He travelled in the then Communist Yugoslavia, reputedly learning Serbo-Croat in two months, and finding there (particularly in what is now Serbia) a world completely outside his own background: the people appreciated his gregariousness, humour and skill at the piano accordion. On Mull, which he also liked for its beauty and its people, he helped his mother run a sheep farm, escaping there as often as he could. […]

    He was also a keen student of international affairs, advocating a solution to the problem of Gibraltar that involved offering Spain a reciprocal enclave in southern England – perhaps Dover or Folkestone – which would become a centre for bullfighting and other facets of Spanish life. His final years were made exceptionally happy by his fourth wife, Alison, who cared for him with calm and amused devotion.

  18. Jeff Rothman says:

    I subscribed to Maledicta in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He may have still been teaching at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) when I was a graduate student there, around 1974.

    Maledicta was an amazing corncopia of insults in various obscure languages. I think I still may have these editions. His focus was not on obscenity, but insults in general. Not only did he get into insults, but he tried to help the reader pronounce them in English.

    The one that I still remember after all of these years is “your mouth is as wide as a whore’s pussy,” referring to a gossip. This was in an obscure African language where people click their tongues when speaking it.

  19. John Cowan says:

    His inability to control his conduct was based on a genuine belief that it was the right thing to do

    I have heard that said of many people, but I suspect the reverse is what is generally the case.

  20. @John Cowan: Indeed, that claim always seems to fall afoul of Feynman’s: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  21. Rodger C says:

    reputedly learning Serbo-Croat in two months

    This appeared on my page next to the title Serbokroatisch in 100 Lektionen. That’s 1-2/3 lessons a day, not bad.

  22. Hey, I’ve got a copy of Serbokroatisch in 100 Lektionen (by Alois Schmaus, 1961)!

  23. Oh, maybe it appeared on your page as part of my random-LibraryThing-titles feed, in which case I withdraw my excitement at the amazing coincidence.

  24. Nothing is ever a coincidence. QED.

  25. Selah!

  26. David Marjanović says:

    The lections in that book are pretty short, I’ve seen it too 🙂

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