Santa Rosa professor is the ‘Noah Webster of verbal aggression’
By David Templeton
“This is the first interview I’ve given in five years,” smiles Dr. Reinhold Aman, ushering me into his book-lined, box-filled Santa Rosa home. “I’m a private person. I don’t seek the spotlight.” During our chat, he is soft-spoken and grandfatherly, his voice barely more than a whisper. He chuckles often. “And of course,” he adds with a grin, “I’ve been in prison.”
Now, there’s a line that could either start a conversation or stop it cold. “I’m not ashamed of it,” he says. “I committed no crime. I was just trying to get rid of a horrible judge and a slimebag lawyer, and I stepped on one too many legal dicks.”
Dr. Aman is the one-time professor of medieval literature who became an editorial force of nature with his eye-opening book series Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. With subscribers in nearly every nation on the planet, and with such fans as Stanley Kubrick and George Carlin to sing his praises, Aman has carved out a singular reputation as the world’s most scholarly dirty old man.
Once called the “Noah Webster of verbal aggression” by the Chicago Tribune, Aman has long known the explosive nature of words. But even he was surprised when his colorfully titled, self-published pamphlet Legal Scumbags of Wisconsin was interpreted by a grand jury as constituting a physical threat against that aforementioned judge, who had ruled unfavorably against him when Aman lived in Wisconsin. Aman was threatened with 25 years in jail and ended up serving 22 months.
“So I went to jail for using language a little too effectively,” he says, laughing. “And now I can call myself a ‘jolly good felon.’ One thing the establishment can’t handle is honesty. They say, ‘Tell the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ But in Hungary there is a much better saying. ‘Tell the truth and they will smash your head in!'”
Aman has spent the months since his release reorganizing his publishing business and preparing for the release of Maledicta 11 (Santa Rosa: Maledicta Press [P.O. Box 14123, Santa Rosa, CA 95402], 1996; $15) and the compendium volume Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words (New York: Marlow & Co., 1996; $14.95).
Maledicta 11 is the long-awaited follow-up to Maledicta 10 (published in 1990), and is being snapped up by long-deprived fans. Opening with Aman’s scathingly angry (and very funny) “Open Letter to Janet Reno,” the mail-order book contains dozens of short works on the etymology and social impact of everything from bathroom graffiti and dirty jokes to racial slurs and blasphemies.
Opus Maledictorum is a mesmerizing sampling of essays previously published in the journal. An excellent starting point for newcomers to the often-shocking world of verbal aggression, the collection contains such vocabulary-building essays as “Elementary Russian Obscenity,” “A Taxonomy of the Provenance of Metaphorical Terms of Abuse,” “I Wanna Hot Dog for My Roll: Suggestive Song Titles,” and “Tom, Dick and Hairy: Notes on Genital Pet Names.” Most of the contributors hold Ph.D.s and enjoy international academic respect in their fields. Authors include Dr. Rasmus Fog, Lois Monteiro, filmmaker John Hughes, and Aman himself, who writes with clear, scholarly efficiency while displaying a fondness for puns and a sharp, salty sense of humor.
“Most of my work does not deal with obscenity as such, with sex and scatology and all that,” Aman explains, when asked what would drive a kindly old gentleman to peruse dictionaries all day in the search for dirty words. “Obscenity is less than 2 percent of what I do. 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. But I record it all honestly.
“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant mentality is very uptight when it comes to sex and excrement, body parts and bodily functions. The American ‘dirty dozen,’ those words that are supposedly so scandalous, are extremely boring. If you want colorful insults, both the clean ones and the really nasty ones, you have to look to other cultures. I’ve done research in about 220 languages, and I’ve heard just about everything you can think of.”
Some examples, perhaps?
“Well, in Thailand,” he complies, “they might say, ‘Talking to you is like playing a violin to a water buffalo.’ What a beautiful image. Some of the best are Yiddish insults. They are very clever. ‘May you inherit three ships of gold and may it not be enough to pay your doctors’ bills.’
“In Spain and the other Catholic countries, they use a lot of blasphemy, in the same way we might use body parts. Sometimes the two cultures merge and you hear something like ‘By the 24 balls of the 12 apostles of Christ!’ Other cultures might use family members in their insults. One insult I heard from a Muslim Gypsy was, ‘I fuck the soul of your dead mother!'” Aman grins. “That one combines everything, doesn’t it? I get goosebumps!”
He goes on to discuss the novelty of animal affronts, listing such insulting comparisons as ‘snake,’ ‘rat, and ‘barracuda.’ “That last one is a good insult for a lawyer,” he deadpans.
“All of these words are very powerful,” he continues. “I read a story in the newspaper recently. There was a guy who was robbing a bank in San Francisco. Now if he had just walked up to the teller and said, ‘Give me all the money,’ she would have given it to him and he would have taken off. But he said, ‘Give me all the fuckin’ money!’ and this elderly bank teller was so upset that he had used that word . . . she took the till and hit him over the head with it. The cops came and took him away.
“This is something I know firsthand,” he laughs. “I used a few words like that, and look what happened to me.”
From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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