Remembering Reinhold Aman

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.

Aman also reprinted some important and hard-to-find works, most notably Allen Walker Read’s indispensable and extremely rare Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy, his study of sexual graffiti; an updated edition of Abraham Roback’s Dictionary of International Slurs; and the first general publication of Mark Twain’s bawdy The Mammoth Cod, with a detailed introduction by G. Legman.

Aman’s facility with and unrestrained use of extreme invective did not serve him well. Following a bitter divorce, he was imprisoned for sending threatening materials to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and the judge who oversaw the case. Referring to “legal slimebags,” he wrote,

Every time I read news about yet another nasty judge or disgusting shyster killed, I rejoice: “Great! One less piece of shit to terrorize us decent people!” After having been fucked over mercilessly by Wisconsin legal slime, I can now fully understand and sympathize with such “killers,” who really should receive an award for cleansing our world of legal vermin.

Aman claimed that verbal aggression was the method of venting anger used by “civilized people”, and that he had never intended actual harm. The court found that his statement that shooting his ex-wife and the judge “would be too fast and too painless” was not, in fact, very civilized; Aman ended up spending over a year in several federal prisons.

After his release, he published Hillary Clinton’s Pen Pal, a guide to the language and culture of prisons, purportedly for the benefit of Mrs. Clinton, who he felt deserved legal peril, and later an essay “‘JEW MOTHERFUCKER’ AND ‘NIGGER’: The Foulmouthed & Lying Clintons”, an attack on Janet Reno, and similar invectives. Denizens of Usenet in the 1990s and 2000s will remember his exceptionally hostile behavior, especially in the language-related groups alt.usage.english and sci.lang, and while he would regularly post useful and informed commentary, the overwhelming amount of vituperation he directed at anyone with whom he disagreed led him to be regarded as one of the more extreme trolls of that era.

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.* 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.”

*The family has requested that any donations go to Forgotten Felines.

20 thoughts on “Remembering Reinhold Aman

  1. Heide March 13, 2019 / 4:52 pm

    Even if I find many of the examples of Aman’s work offensive, I have to tip my hat to you for having written such a marvelous, even-handed biography. What a fascinating character he must have been — but perhaps one best appreciated from a slight distance. Thank you for a great read!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. schrisomalis March 13, 2019 / 5:23 pm

    Thank you for giving us all of this, including all the warts, Jesse. Like many of us who got started on Usenet in the 90s, all my interactions with Aman were extraordinarily negative. I still can’t make any sense of it, and I’m not sure it deserves my time. Without his work I would never have had access to Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy, which now sits proudly on my shelves. But I can hardly forget that he was (along with one other, from the same era and the same sorts of places) an object lesson for young impressionable me, of how to be a deeply cruel, if intellectually gifted, scholar-troll.


  3. Tim Stewart March 13, 2019 / 10:04 pm

    RIP, Rey.


    • M. Martin March 19, 2019 / 1:53 am

      See my comment below for a relevant reference.


    • Aron Sasportas October 28, 2019 / 10:58 pm

      The following was mis-posted under Tim’s post. It is for Thnidu:

      You say in the article in Wikipedia that “he taught […] courses in German grammar, stylistics, conversation, phonetics, philology, medieval and Baroque literature, dialectology, bibliography, and research methods.”

      What is the basis for that statement? The university’s catalogs? A letter from an official of the school? Or Aman’s self-reporting? If self-reporting, the standards of Wikipedia require verification.


      • Gad Ben- Ami December 5, 2020 / 3:36 pm

        I had the pleasure of being one of his students at UWM. We became friends and often discussed swearing in Yiddish. I only have good memories from that time.


  4. Duncan March 14, 2019 / 10:04 am

    “he often complained about being typecast as the dirty-words guy”

    Reminds me of that old joke about Goatfucker Bill.


  5. Earle Jones March 16, 2019 / 12:00 am

    Very sorry to hear about his death. He and I had a vigorous and adversarial interaction. We agreed to a truce, although I think he never forgave me for pointing out to the world that his name, “Reinhold Aman” is an anagram of “Manhole Drain.”


  6. Patrick Collins March 16, 2019 / 1:07 pm

    Interesting life.

    The Best of Maledicta can be found to borrow on the Internet Archive

    The original “A dictionary of International Slurs (Ethnophaulisms) with a supplementary essay on aspects of ethnic prejudice” from 1944 can be found at the Hathi Trust

    “The Mammoth Cod” can be found here The cod in question is not the fish but the scrotum, of course.

    More details of how shitty Aman was regarding his divorce can be found in the appeal against his sentence of 27 months. A civilised person would scream and swear alone in their bathroom to vent their emotions, not send cut-out newspaper headlines “Man kills Ex-Wife” and “Estranged Wife Is Found Slain In Her Home” to their ex-wife glued onto separate postcards. He clearly never understood what he had done wrong as he referred to them much later as “prank postcards”.

    Aman also claimed that threatening people was legal unless it could be proved that there was an intent to carry out that threat. This misapprehension of the law was corrected by the court.

    His sending of many other cranky letters, including one to the Judge’s husband blaming her for the threats, are said to have made his sentence heavier.

    His appeal against the subsequent 18 month sentence was dismissed, despite his claim that the jury had in no way been his peers “educationally, intellectually, linguistically, or otherwise.” He spent 3 years on probation after release as he refused to show remorse.

    It seems Shirley Aman was still alive in 2013, I hope she has had a happy life since her 30 year marriage ended.


  7. M. Martin March 19, 2019 / 1:52 am

    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.


  8. Harry April 9, 2019 / 12:01 am

    A unique person. I will miss him. RIP, Uncle Mal


    • Earle Jones June 13, 2019 / 10:39 pm

      My interaction with Reinhold Aman was limited to our discussions on the Internet NewsGroup “alt.anagrams.” When I pointed out that “Reinhold Aman” was an anagram of “Manhole Drain” he never forgave me!


  9. Eric Oppen May 15, 2019 / 5:14 am

    I never met him, but exchanged e-mails on several occasions. He was always a perfect gentleman to me. I’m sorry about his legal troubles (there are REASONS why I’m not more wistful that I’ve never married) and wish that he’d done more with Maledicta.


  10. Martha Cornog June 2, 2019 / 9:32 pm

    I learned about Rey’s life-mission in the late ’70s, through information circulated by the indefatigable librarian/activist Sandy Berman. We corresponded, and I published an article on “genital pet names” in Maledicta 1981. We had dated briefly shortly before that; then I met my future husband Timothy Perper, which gave me a good excuse for downgrading my relationship with Rey. We did stay in contact – Tim admired his work, if not his judgment – until the early 00’s, visiting him in California one afternoon after he’d been released from prison. Lacking empathy, he was still a fascinating and accomplished guy who put stigmatized language on the scholarly map. Thanks to having known him, I have a small collection of “how to talk dirty” manuals in numerous language that I drew in for a chapter in The Big Book of Masturbation. Thanks, Rey. “Rest in peace” wouldn’t be the best sign-off for him; perhaps “Resist peace” might be better.


  11. Jeff Rothman June 13, 2019 / 8:37 pm

    I subscribed to Maledicta in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I think I still have these paperbacks. I didn’t know at the time that Aman was still teaching at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) when I was a graduate student there.

    I remember his work was a volume of various insults – not so much obscenities – in obscure foreign languages, and that he tried to help the reader pronounce them properly.

    The one I will always remember is, directed to a gossip, “your mouth is as wide as a whore’s pussy,” in an obscure African language where people clicked their tongues when they spoke. Never quite figured that one out.


  12. Neville Elliven September 26, 2019 / 3:58 am

    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


  13. elizabeth July 13, 2022 / 12:57 am

    I had a long and warm penpal relationship with him, with many interesting exchanges. We both loved curses and cats and foreign languages. I had all his books. Somewhere, in his belongings, whatever happened to them, he still has photos of me and a couple of my cats. I remember him writing from prison. Then afterward, in reduced circumstances (in CA? trailer?), living there with his cats as well. We never got to meet in person. We never disagreed on anything, either. So it’s amusing to hear about all the people he violently disagreed with. I remember him with affection.


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