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He Loves It When You Talk Dirty

Reinhold Aman and the Scholarship of Swearing

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He has been called a genius, a crackpot, and the "oracle of opprobrium." Some think he's a crackpot, others consider him a genius.

To his readers he is "Uncle Maledictus," the majordomo of blasphemy and master of insults, slurs, and naughty words. He speaks 6 languages, reads about 25 others, and can insult you in 200 more. Three thousand people from Keokuk to Bankok and from Alaska to Australia subscribe to his yearly journal Maledicta, a scholarly cornucopia of linguistic assaults.

Thirteen years ago, when he was a professor of German philology and medieval literature, the University of Wisconsin fired him by denying him tenure. His research was considered undignified. A few weeks ago, he spoke at the very dignified Newberry Library on a subject that typifies his career after academia: synonyms for sodomy, buggery, and bestiality.

His name is Reinhold Aman, and he has made the study of offensive language and verbal agression his raison d'etre. His latest undertaking is the compilation of the first uncensored Dictionary of Regional Anatomical Terms--a massive project that will eventually encompass most languages and dialects on earth and will take, he says, longer than his lifetime to complete.

When it comes to swearing, today's Americans lack imagination. Most of us rely on what Aman calls the "dirty dozen" insults--a tepid brew indeed, given our polyglot verbal heritage. The way we curse, believes Reinhold Aman, provides crucial clues to our culture--our anxieties, conventions, and taboos. He likes to quote Freud: "The first human who hurled a curse instead of a weapon against his enemy was the founder of civilization."

But taboo words no longer carry the punch they did--they are no longer so taboo. Words that once were verbal substitutes for weapons have become commonplace. "People can't throw things off verbally anymore. They have to go back to where they were three million years ago. Back to physical aggression with fists, knives, and, nowadays, guns."

The insults that Americans--a violent people--do employ hit on what Aman calls "deviations from the norm: physical imperfections; race, religion, intelligence." Aggressive language, he contends, generally stems from ethnocentricity and xenophobia--a deeply ingrained apprehension of anyone unlike us. "To overcome our innate fear of people who look, talk, dress, or act differently from us, we laugh at them, call them names, and thereby subjugate them to prove that we are superior. Children are masters at it."

Attacking such unchangeable "deviations" has become the staple of American verbal aggression. Because our largely white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture lacks the tradition of family and ancestor insults found in Africa and Asia, as well as the Roman Catholic tradition of blasphemy, most WASP insults and taboos involve sex and elimination. Lately, we also have seen an upsurge of ethnic, racist, and sexist jokes. Many also ridicule the tragic: Ethiopian starvation, the shuttle explosion, AIDS. Americans in particular, says Aman, have a penchant for telling "sick" jokes--a phenomenon he views as almost exclusive to this society. These kinds of jokes also "make us realize we're mortal, that these things could happen to us. We're horrified by the endless pictures in publications and on television of dying babies and we're devastated by AIDS. They awaken the fear of death in us, so we get rid of the horror by making a joke of it."

The motto of Aman's journal, Maledicta (Latin for bad words), is "They say it--we print it." Occasionally, however, he finds himself apologizing for some of the material his honesty forces him to print. Take the chapter on Ethiopian jokes in the last volume, which a professor of English wrote under a pseudonym.

What do you call an Ethiopian walking a dog? A vegetarian. What do you call an Ethiopian walking two dogs? A caterer.

"My defense is that these awful jokes published in our journal are a chronicle of our times," Aman has said. "I apologize for printing them, but they are a part of the mentality of this time. Whether I publish them or not, they're being told and thus must be preserved."

Aman attributes Americans' lack of linguistic pungency to a decline in quality education and literacy: "Too much TV; too little reading." Gone are the days of a wit like H.L. Mencken, who once defined democracy as "that system of government under which the people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of state."

Since the 1960's, American society has experienced an enormous increase in conventions attacked and taboos violated. The really nasty words have lost their sting from overuse and consequently their ability to vent steam. Insult an Arab and he might respond: "May the fleas of a thousand camels invade your armpits!" Insult an American and you'll probably get back, "Fuck you!"

For 21 years, Aman has been gathering books and articles in some 220 languages covering the past 5,000 years of verbal aggression. His obsession has resulted in the world's largest collection of such material--4,000 books and articles, 15,000 pages of research, and 2,500 news clippings. It has also produced the ultimate vehicle for disseminating it worldwide--Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. (His membership card sports an obscene hieroglyphic cartouche common in ancient Egyptian legal documents as an admonition against violating the terms of the deal and still popular after 3,000 years in the Near East: May you get fucked by a donkey!) As one reviewer said about Maledicta 8, Aman's 320-page volume that came out in November 1985: "If it were edited for television, it would end up the size of a bus transfer."

Why this fascination with the black sheep of our human vocabulary? Aman's answer makes perfect sense: "Every day around the world, tens of thousands of people are humiliated, demoted, fired, fined, jailed, injured, killed, or commit suicide because of insults, slurs, curses, threats, blasphemies, vulgarities, and other offensive words. Such events emphasize the imprtance of this type of language and cry out for more research on verbal aggression and its effects." And besides, "bad" words have been and are used in every culture. "Although we have no written proof dating back further than about 3,000 BC, we can assume safely that humans have engaged in verbal aggression ever since they began to talk, at least one million years ago. From the moment written sources become available, we find an uninterrupted stream of evidence of maledicta in most, if not all, languages, from old Egyptian lawbooks, medieval epics, the Bible, and Shakespeare to contemporary novels, movies or television shows, and today's newspapers."

Aman's colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee apparently didn't share his enthusiasm for his philological forays. In 1974, two years after students voted him one of the top four professors at the school, he was denied tenure, partly because "my research was not considered dignified." One of his colleagues called it "garbage research." Aman fought the decision in federal court and lost. When he saw his department chairman for the last time, Aman delivered the kind of invective that would soon find a home in Maledicta; relying on a traditional Thai insult, Aman told him, "Talking to you is like playing a violin to a water buffalo."

Maledicta became Aman's answer to the "despicable cacademoids and their simian pals" who ridiculed the legitimacy of his passion. For these "brainless twerps of academia," he coined the term cacademoid--which merges academic, the suffix -oid, and the Latin cacare--"to defecate." Catapulted out of the university system, Aman and his family nearly starved. He moved his wife and daughter from Milwaukee to nearby Waukesha, a town of 50,000 where "we lived on borrowed money, credit cards, life insurance, and mortgages. We couldn't even afford recapped tires at K Mart."

But then Aman hit on the idea of issuing a newsletter on verbal aggression. He contacted other linguists and received so much positive reaction and so many articles and contributions that he decided to publish a journal instead.

In 1977, after what Aman has described as "11 years of foreplay" and "a 3-year pregnancy," he gave birth to his enfant terrible, the first Maledicta. In the new journal's introduction, Aman jubilantly told his readers, invoking the immortal words of Chicago's late Mayor Daley, "'They have vilified me! They have crucified me! They have even criticized me!' But Gentle Reader, I don't give a shex: Maledicta lives!"

A decade later, Maledicta is thriving. Some 3,000 subscribers from 65 countries pay $19 annually to delve into this lighthearted, whimsical, but scholarly journal, with such esoteric titles as: "Latent Accusative Tendencies in the Skopje Dialiect; Or, Where to Go and What to Do With It in North Central Macedonia," "Chinese Values as Depicted in Mandarin Terms of Abuse," "Verbal Aggression in Dutch Sleep Talking," "AIDS Jokes: Or Schadenfreude Around an Epidemic," "Ageist Language," "Hamlet Maledictum," "Swiss Swearwords: Epithets in the Alps," "Ritual and Personal Insults in Stigmatized Subcultures: Gay--Black--Jew," "A Connotative Analysis of Synonyms for Sexual Intercourse," "Roman Hands Gave Us the Verbal Finger: Graffiti and Literary Form," "Notes on Genital Pet Names," "Dialectics of Brazilian Negro Proverbs," and "Kakologia: A Chronicle of Nasty Riddles and Naughty Wordplays."

Aman ranks Hungarians as the world's most foulmouthed people, merging the worst blasphemies of their Western Christian neighbors with the scatalogical and sexual nadirs of their Eastern Slavic neighbors.

God, stop slapping me in my face with your cock all covered with shit from fucking Jesus! is a Magyar plea Aman regards as the ripest blasphemy he has encountered in his professional lifetime. Aside from the odd Eskimo singing duel--these can go on for hours until someone gets mad enough to take a swing--Yiddish epithets are a close second to the Hungarian, possessing a baroque splendor all their own: May you inherit a mansion with a thousand rooms, and each room with a thousand beds--and may cholera throw you from bed to bed to bed! Aman theorizes that 2,000 years of oppression have turned Jews into peerless verbal aggressors.

And by their verbal aggression shall ye know them. Study a culture's terms of abuse and its taboo vocabulary, and you can establish its moral value system. The English language, for example, contains over 1,000 terms for copulation and some 1,500 synonyms for genitals, "which suggest that these body parts and functions are extremely important to us but also forbidden, since there are so many euphemisms."

Scatology is peculiarly WASPish, believes Aman, as blasphemy is Roman Catholic and insult to family native to the cultures of Africa, Asia, and Polynesia. " These include derogatory--often sexual--references to the father, mother, grandmother, or siblings of the opponent. The term 'motherfucker' is found in most West African languages and was originally foreign to America, imported by the West African slaves."

Only a dozen large public libraries subscribe to Maledicta--Aman does not recommend it to smaller ones because of the likelihood of community reaction. But some 250 university libraries take it, from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the Sorbonne, Oxford, and Cambridge--and yes, even the University of Wisconsin.

Working out of his Waukesha home, where he lives with his wife and grown daughter, the 50-year-old Aman labors 16 hours a day, seven days a week, "working like a demented beaver because so much has to be done." It is strictly a one-man operation; in additon to resident maledictor, Aman is also the journal's publisher, editor, typesetter, proofreader, and mailing department--he calls himself the journal's shabes-goy. "It's a living," he says, "that keeps me independent, free . . . and penniless. But I love it."

It isn't easy being the world's leading authority on verbal aggression. In additon to the financial drain of publishing Maledicta--Aman says his net income was $5,537 last year--he has had to endure his own share of abuse. He admits it bothered him in the beginning being labeled a crackpot, but "you get calloused after a while. People think I'm a wild and crazy guy, all foul-mouthed and swearing, but I'm not. You don't have to be a beaver to study Canadian fauna."

Aman earned his PhD in philology and medieval literature from the University of Texas, where he did his dissertation on Parzival, the 13th-century epic of the Holy Grail by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Aman's interest in aggression--he analyzed the 151 battle scenes in this 24,000-line epic--gradually shifted from physical to verbal. During a seminar on dialectology, he came across a list of German phrases from 1876 that included I'm going to knock you on the ears with a cooking spoon, you monkey.

Why call a human being a monkey? he asked himself. What other animal names do we call one another? Aman was seduced. By midnight he had compiled a list of 200 animal, plant, food, and other metaphors used as insults that became the basis for his 1973 Lexicon of Bavarian Insults, with 2,500 entries.

Born in Bavaria, Aman became a naturalized citizen in 1963 while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He taught German, medieval literature, and dialectology there for six years, before the university--"those biodegradable nitwits in cacademia"--denied him tenure.

If publishing Maledicta and dueling with the academic establishment haven't provided enough stimulation for this "anal-compulsive crypto-sadist and wetback via the Danube," as one friendly reader addressed him, Aman has embarked on another project he blithely predicts will take him the rest of his life--something that has "never been done before in any language." He is compiling a multilingual, multivolume glossary of offensive words and terms and calling it the Dictionary of Regional Anatomical Terms (acronym DRAT ). It is his answer to (and attack on) the much-praised work of Frederic Cassidy, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who last year published the first volume of a five-volume Dictionary of American Regional English (acronym DARE).

Cassidy began his project in the 60's, organizing a team of researchers to collect regionalisms from all over the country. Cassidy's team put together a questionnaire that asked for the local ways of saying things, and was organized into 41 categories, such as "weather," "parts of the body," and "children's games." Starting in 1965, the researchers traipsed through small-town America looking for idioms. During five years of work (largely funded by the U. S. Office of Education, the University of Wisconsin, and the National Endowment for the Humanities), field-workers interviewed 2,777 people.

In 1980, computers began sorting through the data and composing maps that showed where given words and phrases could be heard. When the first volume (A through C) appeared in 1985, Stuart Flexner, editor in chief of the Random House Dictionaries and coeditor of the Dictionary of American Slang, wrote in The New York Times Book Review: "The publication . . . is an astounding achievement, a landmark for the American language and of American scholarship. This most scholarly of dictionaries is also an exciting celebration of our language and our people." Time rhapsodized that "writers, etymologists, and other devotees of verbal arcana have never been given a richer browsing ground . . ." William Safire (whom Aman likes to call "the Mr. Clean of pop linguists") endorsed DARE as "the most exciting linguistic project going on in the U.S."

Aman's sentiments? "DARE, shmare!"

In his vitriolic attack on DARE in the forthcoming Maledicta 9, he calls Cassidy "a language castrator," and denounces his dictionary as "incomplete and dishonest; an outmoded, expensive, flashy car without a motor." According to Aman, Cassidy has committed the linguistically heinous crime of "precensoring, prepurgating, and cassidyzing" his questionnaire. Aman has coined "cassidyze" for the occasion, defining the word as: "To avoid having to bowdlerize later by suppressing in advance questions resulting in words of an indecent nature." He accuses Cassidy of covert censorship by slanting his questionnaire in such a way as to avoid dealing with hundreds of "offensive" regional words and expressions concerning "naughty body parts and what to do with them."

A trained dialectologist himself, Aman argues that a truly unexpurgated questionnaire would have included questions to elicit regional words for at least such basics as penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, clitoris, anus, to urinate, to defecate, and to copulate. "Most people are more interested in, and know more terms for, the various genitals than for the outside covering of dry beans."

Cassidy and his scholars did not completely ignore what Aman calls "bold barnyard subjects," inquiring into regionalisms for women's underwear, breasts, the part of the body you sit on, going to have a baby, vomiting, diarrhea, immoral woman, and homosexual man. "But that's as bold as they got," Aman declares.

Cassidy naturally disagrees. "The principles of exclusion are not a matter of censorship and bowdlerizing. With DARE, there were two purposes--one was to cover folk speech and the other, regional words." He defined the rules for inclusion in DARE's introduction: (1) "Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is not used generally throughout the United States but only in part (or parts) of it, or by a particular social group, is to be included. (2) Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is distinctively a folk usage (regardless of region) is to be included."

In addition, Cassidy describes so-called four-letter words as "everybody's property. They are not regional, and I have not made a point of collecting them." In an interview in the Washington Post, he stated: "No use putting in something like 'damn.'. . . The rest are all there. If they're regional, we put them in. We don't expurgate anything. You wouldn't have an accurate picture of the language if you left anything out."

But Aman continues to rage. "They ain't all there, dammit! I have already collected hundreds of terms that are not 'everybody's property.' Just where did he draw the line between what is 'folk' and what is not, what is 'regional' and what is 'everybody's property,' and what is worthy of scholarly investigation and what is too vulgar?"

As for Aman's criticism, Frederic Cassidy says he's perfectly willing "to answer in a scholarly, responsible journal, other than Aman's own Maledicta--where he can print anything he wants."

Some of DARE's shortcomings, according to Aman, not only involve the suppression of hundreds of philologically significant words and terms but also the inclusion of many words that are "archaic and obsolete, culled from material published during the last one hundred years. The most recent vocabulary was collected in interviews conducted in 1970 or earlier. Thus all material was at least 15 years old when the first volume was published in 1985 and will be decades old by the time the last volume appears."

Another major gripe of Aman's is that the vocabulary in DARE is not truly representative of all Americans, "as 66 percent of the informants were 60 years or older. Similarly, only 6.7 percent of the informants were black and only 0.3 percent American Indians. We also know nothing of the regional vocabularies of homosexuals and other special groups, including major ethnic groups. The 1,002 representative communities are far too few to present a true picture of regional American language, as are the mere 2,777 persons interviewed out of some 200 million Americans." Aman also points out that "not one of the 2,777 informants who allegedly represent us used the terms 'bullshit' or 'bullshitter' (neither is in DARE). Who were these 'carefully selected' informants, anyway?" he asks.

He also doubts the usefulness of the maps furnished by DARE to illustrate word usage. Aman cites the following example: "For the term not to know one's ass from one's elbow, the DARE map indicates that the expression and its variants are chiefly north Atlantic. Out of the 2,777 informants allegedly representing American English, only 24 use this phrase." Aman claims that "this is nonsense to anyone who knows folk speech." To prove his point, he posed the question "Have you ever used the expression He doesn't know his ass from his elbow?" in his own questionnaire. "From the first responses I have received from 15 states, 33 out of 50 informants had used the expression versus 24 out of 2,777 DARE informants." According to Aman, this expression is used in most states, including Texas and Colorado, and throughout California. "So much for the accuracy of DARE and the label 'chiefly north Atlantic,'" he gloats.

Aman's idea for his Dictionary of Regional Anatomical Terms began to gather steam in 1977. At the time, he had devised a 957-item questionnaire and published it in Maledicta 1. Its massive number of questions resulted in only one response--from Argentina, in Spanish. The project was temporarily shelved until Aman saw an advance copy of the DARE questionnaire and noted not only the chaos and brevity of the "body parts" section but also that "it stopped at the navel and continued at the knees." When DARE finally came out, Aman was so irritated by the dictionary's exclusions that one afternoon he composed the first 250-question draft of the "Maledicta Onomastic Questionnaire" (MOQ).

For nearly a year, Aman has labored at refining the questionnaire and expanding it by another 250 questions. He sent samples to Maledicta readers and got back letters complaining of significant deletions concerning gay culture and accusing him of being too male-oriented. "I've tried very hard to see everything from a woman's point of view, too. I'd lie awake until two or three in the morning and rehash the whole thing. What did I miss from a woman's point of view, a gay's point of view, a black's point of view? And I kept coming up with more material. But now I've had to call it quits. I'm sure when I get material from Africa and Asia, there are going to be terms for things no one else has."

Aman's goal is nothing short of gargantuan. DRAT will not only provide a survey of American English but also cover all other English-speaking countries. Ultimately, future volumes will encompass most other languages and dialects. "It's your chance to be immortalized," he likes to say. "For the first time, someone's going to pay attention to your vocabulary." He hopes this opportunity will entice his readers to spend the several hours needed to fill out his questionnaire.

MOQ's 500 questions burrow into such specific areas as "body parts," "excretions," "terms of endearment and abuse," and "offensive gestures." Aman puts his repondents into carefully constructed situations--something he complains DARE didn't do at all. "They asked for exclamations of surprise, pain, and anger, but that's too abstract. I've set up specific instances which deal with a topic like anger and with a specific target and situation." One MOQ sample: "You're standing in a long, slow-moving supermarket checkout line. A well-dressed middle-aged woman in front of you suddenly turns around and sneezes right in your face. What should you say or shout at her? You . . .!" One man wrote back to Aman complaining that he wouldn't know what to say since he only went grocery shopping on Sundays when there weren't any lines. "Whatever I do, I can't win," Aman laments. "I could scream sometimes!"

MOQ respondents are asked to provide some personal information--sex, age, religion, race, education, geographic location--so Aman can say, for example, what words are used only by women, or only by white males over 50, or only by black Catholic women under 35, or only by Jews in New York with a master's degree, or only by French-Canadian lawyers in Toronto. The possibilities, he says, are almost limitless. Background information will also aid in documenting usage of terms in the U.S. and Canada and comparing it with usage throughout the English-speaking world. "We will be able to compare sexual metaphors in English with those of Dutch or with all Germanic languages, or contrast Romance-language metaphors with those of Slavic languages or with Southeast Asian languages. The results will tell us more about linguistic structures, metaphors, and wordplays and shed light on the worldview of all cultures as revealed by their vocabularies."

The replies, says Aman, will provide definitive answers to such questions as: Do Baptists and Jews use fewer blasphemies than Catholics? What blasphemies are used by Moslems? Are there different terms for "pimples" in Wales and South Africa? Do boys and girls have different terms for elimination? Are there regional and social dialects within the gay and black communities? Does a Navaho's, Sioux's, or Chippewa Indian's heritage show up in his English?

So far, Aman has sent out about 4,500 questionnaires, 3,000 to Maledicta subscribers and the others to those curious parties who have run across the "swearword prof" in numerous newspaper articles. A short letter in the January 1987 Playboy describing his mission has so far netted an astounding 605 requests for the questionnaire--"from lawyers to murderers," he says. (To receive a free questionnaire, write to Dr. Aman at 331 S. Greenfield Avenue, Waukesha, WI 53186). Coverage in the Toronto Globe and Mail and Star resulted in some 230 requests for his MOQ. One Canadian respondent in particular caught Aman's eye. "I got one from a former London bobby who served in the Royal Air Force in Africa and East Asia. He has a fantastic mixture of English spoken from London to Singapore. How many Americans know that British biffy means 'toilet,' or that Tom is a police term for 'prostitute'?"

Then there is a woman in British Columbia who produced one of Aman's favorites, morning glory. He explains: "Waking up in the morning, most males with a full bladder get an erection, commonly known as piss-hard, but this lady calls it morning glory. That's very poetic and colorful. I'm not too interested in the usual shit, fuck, piss stuff. I'm looking for euphemisms and am much more pleased with the beautiful, poetic, playful use of words. Anybody can say shit-house, but then there are some who call it the half-moon place." To name just a few of the "indecent" regional folk terms Aman has received from MOQ respondents: anteater (for an uncircumcised penis), choking the chicken (for masturbation), East River whitefish (a condom floating in water), sharpen one's skates (urinate), finger-flicker, grapes, helmet, johnson, 'taint, wedgie, wrinkle bar . . . "This is genuine folk speech. But you won't find it in DARE because the professors didn't have the guts to ask the right questions," Aman rails.

He plans to gather information for his dictionary for the rest of the year. He counts on extensive media converage plus "giving his readers hell," to drum up more responses. "If I will spend the last 25 years of my life doing this, they can spend three hours filling out my MOQ." He is financing the project himself and there's no outside help--no grants, no sponsors, no typists. Not that he couldn't use the money or a better computer, but "I bought my freedom when I left the university system. I now cherish that freedom so much that I don't want to have strings attached from anybody. I print exactly what I want because I have no obligations to anybody. I'm a free man."

DRAT's first major volume, projected for late 1988, will be on American English, with samples from Canadian, British, South African, and Australian English. Volume two, in Aman's master plan, will include the rest of the Germanic languages; volume three, the Romance languages; volume four, Slavic languages; volume five, African languages; volume six, Asian languages. "I swear this is the last project of my life and I'm going to work on this until I die. By then, I'll have done an enormous amount of work but I'll have only scratched the surface. At that point, I hope some of my younger readers will carry on the work."

Each word or expression in DRAT will be joined by a description of who's using it. For example, as Aman explains, "with the term morning glory, you can find out that the informant is female, lives in British Columbia, is 30, was raised Anglican, and has a college education. This will give the reader an idea of who uses what word or expression."

To date, Aman has got 400 questionnaires back. He knows now, for instance, what Japanese call "the yellowish stuff you find in the corner of your eyes when you wake up in the morning." We call it sand or duck-butter. But the Japanese? They call it mekuso, "eye-shit."

"Even our harmless-sounding duck-butter can cause embarrassment," he cautions, "because in Arkansas it means something entirely different, smegma. But the fascinating and--if not understood--embarrassing or dangerous terms are found in other languages, where dictionaries are of no help. 'Birdie'--or "little bird'?--in Polish--ptaszek--means 'penis,' but in Yiddish--feygele--it means 'male homosexual.' In parts of France, the local word for 'cricket' also means prostitute, and 'watercress' refers to pubic hair. You can get really confused by French fraise, which means 'strawberry,' as well as 'a tool for enlarging a hole,' and more . . . If you tell a French lady from one region that you want to kiss her fraises, thinking that means 'nipples,' she might well oblige--but in some other fashion, as in other regions it refers to vulva.

"So who says our research has no socially redeeming value?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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