T I M E
THE  WEEKLY  NEWSMAGAZINE

January 9, 1978 -- Vol. 111, No. 2, p. 64

Insult Artistry: Perfecting Verbal Abuse

Reinhold Aman is the name in pejoration, not to mention invective, vituperation, obloquy, opprobrium, objurgation, abusive epithets and billingsgate. Aman, 41, is the editor of Maledicta, the International Journal of Verbal Aggression, which he publishes irregularly out of his home in Waukesha, Wis. He can curse in 200 languages and, with the possible exception of Don Rickles, he is the only American who makes a full-time living out of insults.

    His goal is grandiose: to collect and analyze every offensive term ever used on the planet, and to make Aman synonymous with malediction the world over. Says he: "I've spent eleven years on it, day and night, working like a demented beaver because so much has to be done."

    The first issue of Maledicta ("bad words" in Latin) is now in the hands of 1,480 subscribers who pay $18 per year. It contains scholarly dissertations on such subjects as Yiddish insults, scurrilous Elizabethan and Jacobean sexual metaphors, and "Latent Accusative Tendencies in the Skopje Dialect." Other articles include a bracing harangue by Aman himself, directed at academics who do not appreciate his life's work ("biodegradable nitwits" and "cacademoids," a neologism formed from "academic" and the babytalk word for feces, "caca"). The coat of arms of his International Maledicta Society is a 3,000-year-old obscene Egyptian insult in hieroglyphic.

    Aman thinks cussing is socially important -- it releases pent-up emotions and reveals crucial information about culture and psychology. Among other things, he is studying the language of German prostitutes and Peruvian criminals, American college slang, Mojave insult gestures and the terminology of Chinese eunuchs. In an Olympics of world cursing, he believes that Yiddish would rank high, and Hungarian would win the blasphemy prize hands down. Also notable are Turkish rhymed insults, deadly serious Eskimo singing duels and a sneaky insult in Hindi that translates literally as "brother-in-law" but actually means "I slept with your sister." In general, says Aman, Anglo-Saxon cultures prefer insults dealing with excrement and body parts, Catholic countries are fond of blasphemy, and cultures of the Middle and Far East are partial to ancestor insults.

    Americans, Aman says, are "generally very poor at swearing. They just don't know how to do it, and usually fall back on the same 24 words or so." What talent there is in the U.S. apparently is found in rural areas and the Deep South. "There you get concrete vivid images that come out of a strong oral tradition -- Billy Carter is a good example. City dwellers' vocabularies are very anemic."

    Aman has a tip for Americans wishing to improve their verbal-abuse techniques: "Look for a distinguishing characteristic. Each of us is deviant in some way. For instance, I wear glasses, I'm five-foot-seven, 20 pounds overweight, have short hair and a Kissinger accent. So you could start off calling me a fat, four-eyed, runty, reactionary, sewer-mouth Kraut." Still, he considers it unsporting, and sometimes destructive, for cursers to pick on physical characteristics. Says he: "Insults should be aimed at behavior, something a person can change."

    A native of Bavaria, Aman worked as a chemical analyst in Montreal and Milwaukee, got a B.S. and a Ph.D. in medieval languages and literature and taught for six years at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. In 1972 the university denied him tenure. Aman did not leave graciously. On the way out the door, he rather unimaginatively called his department chairman "a boring ass." His next comment was a shade better. "When I see you," he sneered, "my feet fall asleep." Explains Aman: "At swearing I'm a professional, but sometimes my hypothalamus takes over and I get so angry I can't think."

    Aman fought the tenure decision, but finally lost a court battle and most of his respect for academe. Says he: "Those brainless twerps. People are killed and injured every day because of insults, but they refuse to study them because the subject is disreputable."

    Now on his own, Aman is "independent, free and penniless," eking out a living from Maledicta and lectures. But he foresees a rosy future. Insults, he insists, are a growth area because "the whole world is one offensive stimulus."

    The original article is here.


Newsweek
November 17, 1980, p. 103

Sowing Wild Oaths

Americans have gone soft at the mouth. They have lost their capacity for cursing, their muse of malediction. In moments of rage, they feebly resort to a dirty dozen cusswords that have long since grown too common to cut. So laments Reinhold Aman, a connoisseur of curses, and he is determined to do something about it.

    Aman, a retired professor of literature, heads the Maledicta Society, a one-man operation in Waukesha, Wis., aimed at sowing wild oaths. The society's good works consist of rescuing from oblivion the vocabulary of imprecation. Samples: "May you have three shiploads of gold -- and it should not be enough to pay for your doctor's bills" (Yiddish); "Yo' breath is so foul it would knock a buzzard off a manure wagon" (American South).

    Aman founded the Maledicta Society four years ago after retiring from the University of Wisconsin where, he says, he was denied tenure because of his exotic specialty. Twice yearly, the society publishes Maledicta, the International Journal of Verbal Aggression, which claims 2,000 subscribers and features such enlightening articles as "Old Irish Insults" and "Israeli Soccer Cheers and Jeers."

    Blasphemy: The 44-year-old, German-born Aman says his research, begun in 1965 when he was working on a Ph.D. in philology, shows that white Protestant swearing tends to draw on body functions and sex, while Roman Catholics most frequently use religious blasphemy. Yiddish curses have a baroque splendor all their own: 2,000 years of oppression, Aman theorizes, may have turned the Jews into peerless verbal aggressors, as in: "May you have a house, and this house have 1,000 rooms, and those rooms have 1,000 beds -- and may cholera throw you from bed to bed to bed."

    Aman regrets that invective has grown particularly threadbare in the cities, and he speculates that this may have something to do with the rising rate of urban mayhem. When people lose their capacity to swear, he says, their aggression takes more violent form.


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