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German law has three distinct terms in the context of insulting a person:

  • § 185, Beleidigung -- Insulting a person. This covers e.g. flipping somebody off in traffic, calling somebody names etc.
  • § 186, Üble Nachrede -- Making unproven claims that decry somebody, damaging his reputation. (Rumor-mongering?)
  • § 187, Verleumdung -- Making false claims that decry somebody, damaging his reputation.

The first is "insult", that much is clear.

For the other two, I found that English distinguishes between spoken defamation (slander) and written (or otherwise published) defamation (libel), but apparently does not distinguish between "unproven" and "proven false" slander / libel, which makes it very difficult to talk about this nuance of German law.

Are there English words that would distinguish between "üble Nachrede" (saying bad things about somebody that you can't prove) and "Verleumdung" (saying bad things about somebody that you know aren't true)?

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    I don’t recall anything offhand, but there is a law.SE q&a. They might have some good ideas over there. – Xanne Aug 14 at 7:40
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    The difference also includes the role of malice: the intent to do harm. There are also differences between British and American law. Unfortunately, this question goes beyond the scope of this website. – KarlG Aug 14 at 9:08
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According to the official (though not legally binding) English translation of the German law, "üble Nachrede" is (just) "defamation", while "Verleumdung" is rendered as "intentional defamation".

The equivalent article of Swiss criminal law on "üble Nachrede" is also titled (simply) "defamation" in English, while "Verleumdung" is translated as "wilful defamation".

This suggests that there are no established English terms to distinguish the two legal aspects as clearly as German does. The best option is to add clarifying adjectives, such as unintended vs. intentional.

(Austria, as of this writing, does not provide an official English translation of its penal code, but also distinguishes between the two in the original German.)

  • Interesting, thank you. But these distinguish based on intent, not the degree of truthfulness... on the upside, this tells me that there apparently is no "fitting" set of words / phrases. I was worried that I was just not getting the nuances of the English words. – DevSolar Aug 14 at 9:42
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In English CIVIL law, the difference between proven and unproven defamatory statements, whether slander or libel, is tested in the courts. If the supposedly defamed person sues the alleged slanderer or libeller in court, it is up to the defendant to prove their defamatory claim is true. The jury then decides the outcome, based on the evidence. If they find in favour of the defendant, the defamation is accepted as true. It is therefore expected that any publically declared defamatory statements should not be made unless there is evidence to support them.

One famous case is that of Deborah Lipstadt who was sued by David Irving for libel, by accusing him of distorting the facts in her book "Denying the Holocuast." The court ruled that Irving's claim of libel relating to English defamation law and Holocaust denial was not valid because Lipstadt's claim that he had deliberately distorted evidence had been shown to be substantially true.

The use of bad or offensive language, or "flipping someone off" is covered by other laws.

  • Slightly missing the point of distinguation of § 186 and § 187. If statements can be proven true, they aren't defamatory, they are facts. § 186 is about statements that might or might not be true (e.g., spreading rumors -- "I heard he's beating his wife" when the offender doesn't really know either way), § 187 is about statements the offender knows to be untrue (i.e., carrying an additional degree of malice, e.g. if the offender knows that the person does not in fact beat his wife and made it up from whole cloth). – DevSolar Aug 16 at 17:01

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