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.

Comments

  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.
    https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F3/31/550/592265/

  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.

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