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.”