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. 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 🙂

  27. Neville Elliven says

    I encountered and befriended Rey on Usenet in the mid-Nineties, and last communicated with him early this year, before I moved my residence. Wondering why I had not heard from him, I did a search tonight, and found this blog. Yes, I know he was a scoundrel and a scold, but he was a brilliant man with a depth of understanding unmatched in my experience. I learned a great deal from him, and for that I am grateful. RIP Rey

  28. Thanks for that; I’m glad you found this post!

  29. Most of what Reinhold Aman published about Yidish was worthless. David L. Gold debunked him on that head in volume 4 of Jewish Language Review, 1984, pp. 183-189.

  30. I don’t seem to have told this story here per Dr. Google.

    On the occasion of Monty Python’s first visit to the U.S., only four of them were present when interviewed by the NYT:

    Interviewer: Whose work have you been influenced by?

    Monty Python #1: I’ve been influenced by the work of Albert Gore. [Not the U.S. Vice President and victim of the canard that he said he invented the Internet, but his father.]

    Monty Python #2: I’ve been influenced by the work of Gore Vidal.

    Monty Python #3: I’ve been influenced by the work of Vidal Sassoon.

    Monty Python #4: (silence)

    Only much later did I discover the existence of Sassoon David Sassoon, who would have provided a perfect answer not only for Python #4 but for as many more Pythons as one’s mind could imagine.

    Not all Sassoons belong to the once world-famous and very rich Baghdadi Jewish family, but Siegfried definitely did.

  31. This is Rey’s daughter, Susan. I occasionally come here to read comments, some of which are heartfelt, and others hurtful, as this was my father who passed away March 2 of this year. Nine months later, I continue to grieve. I’m sure I always will. I did recover a case of all of his Maledicta Journals, save Vol 1 and 3, I believe. I have all of the cases stored in my garage, and would happily sell them to an interested party for a modest price. I’m not wanting to “get rich” here, but wanting to respect my father in that if I gave them away or threw them away, he’d be mortified. I’ve perused Amazon and other book sellers who ask a pretty penny. I have a case of each, located in Northern CA, and would be happy if someone wanted to purchase them to resell or collect. Please email me if so. 2019 has been an awful year. As an only child, finding my father dead, I still can’t wrap my head around it all. Thanks for reading this. RIP, Dad, Rey Aman

  32. My condolences, Susan; your father was an impressive man. I hope you can find a buyer for the journals.

  33. Trond Engen says

    My condolences too. And take the hurtful comments with fondness and pride. Reinhold Aman lived his life giving and taking insults, probably giving a great deal more than he took. His epitaph couldn’t be different.

    Your fathers collection really belongs in a scientific library, but I suppose he didn’t trust or want to support any public institution.

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    For some reason I missed this post last March. I got on well with Rey at alt.usage_english, in part because we shared a view of …

    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.

    His attacks on the semi-regular’s mother were indeed vile, but I fear he never knew when enough was enough. Incidentally, the semi-regular has completely dropped the “semi” and now posts many times a day. I’m surprised that he has never appeared here (not when I was looking, anyway).

    He wasn’t really misogynist in general, and was always, as far as I recall, perfectly polite to the women who post at alt.usage.english.

    I add my condolences to Susan.

  35. Steve Worcester says

    Visited him at his home in Waukesha once, having collected and shared volumes 1-5 with my father. He was a gracious host, amusing and kind to a fan of his work. I was impressed that he had devised his own typesetting software from scratch. I was a beginning LaTeX user at the time.

    His great admiration of Arab language insults, medical group nouns and object found in rectums at the Waukesha ER are indelible 30+ years later.

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